the Sterling Family trilogy
has an underlying theme about
family closeness, it was rather
fitting that I did a lot of
brainstorming with my family
on this one (hence the book
dedication). I originally conceived
of writing about a highwayman
several years ago while on
the train to Bath with my daughter.
Heroine Julianna has a home
in Bath—thus far, it's
one of my favorite places in
new son-in-law Steve threw
out the idea of calling the
hero-highwayman the Magpie—I
knew immediately it was the
perfect fit. And my husband
helped "choreograph" the
final dramatic scene—he
got to play the hero (of course!).
ran a special contest to name
the feline in this book (Julianna
is befriended by a cat during
the scene where... well, I
don't want to give anything
away). I knew what he looked
like as I was writing (see
photo), but every name I came
up with just didn't fit, so
I asked readers for a little
help! Thanks to Laurie
of California for coming
up with the name Maximilian
(for her efforts, Laurie won
a luscious box of chocolates!). The
picture featured here (and
for the contest) is actually
a photo of my own sweet kitty
Sassy. When I'm writing, Sass
can usually be found curled
up in her bed on the corner
of my desk.
a name just doesn't fit the
character. I originally called
the hero Quentin, but visions
of Quentin Tarantino kept popping
up in my mind. It didn't take
me long to change the hero's
name to Dane--very appropriate,
since my great-grandfather
was a Dane.
Perfect Hero is
third in the Sterling family
Perfect Bride is
the first book, while the
second is A
My original title was Always
A BESTSELLER! (posted
Perfect Hero hits
third in Samantha's
on the New
York Times Bestseller
on the USAToday Bestseller
mass market paperback
Perfect Hero receives TOP
Four and a half stars!
Perfect Hero is
a dream come true for
Sterling family fans.
Not only is Dane perfection,
Julianna is his match.
What fun to watch these
two fall in love as
they find a way to
catch a spy! James
simply gets better
and better; like cream
she rises to the top
of her form."
more about Samantha
Click here or
on small image at
right to see it larger.
Click here to
download a PDF.
Whispers had begun to circulate in the church.
Oh, but it was wrong . . . so wrong. For only
moments earlier, all she could think was that
no other day could have been more perfect for
this . . . her wedding day.
High above, the sunlight shone through the
stained glass windows of St. George's Church
in Hanover Square, bathing the interior of
the church in a radiant, ephemeral glow.
It was a sign, Lady Julianna Sterling had decided
as she stepped from the carriage and approached
the church. For too long now, a cloud of shadow
had been cast upon the Sterlings. She'd viewed
it as a symbol of her life to come, a good
sign. For surely on such a glorious, golden
day like this, no hint of darkness would dare
come to pass. Her union with Thomas Markham
would be blessed, blessed as no other.
And yet now, but moments later . . . . She
battled a low-grade panic. Thomas should have
been here by now.
Where was he? Where?
A hand touched her elbow. Julianna looked up
into her oldest brother's gray eyes. If Sebastian
noticed the whispers of their guests, he ignored
"You look like a princess," he said huskily.
Julianna struggled for a smile and miraculously
produced one. Her gown was of sheer, pale pink
silk—her favorite color—draped
over silver satin. Matching pink slippers encased
her feet. Sheer, Brussels lace adorned the
sleeves; embroidered on the hem were delicate
white rosebuds, shot here and there with glistening
silver thread. But perhaps the most striking
feature was the long, elegant train which swirled
"I feel like one," she admitted softly. "But
thank you, my lord. I daresay you're rather dashing
"And what of me?" Another voice, this one
belonging to her brother Justin. "Am I not dashing
Julianna wrinkled her nose. "Desperate
is what you are," she retorted, "if
you must seek compliments from your sister."
"Minx," Justin drawled.
Sheltered on each side by her dark-haired,
suavely handsome older brothers, Julianna slipped
dainty, lace-gloved hands into the crook of
their elbows. For twenty-three years Sebastian
and Justin had protected her and sheltered
her to the best of their ability—not
that she had wanted it or needed it—but
she loved them dearly for it.
Justin cocked a brow and addressed Sebastian. "While
I realize it's normally a mother's duty to
see that a young bride is adequately prepared
for her wedding night, I trust you've seen
to it that our sister has been apprised of
all the . . . how may I put this delicately
. . . the requisite information—"
"Actually, I asked that Sebastian save that duty
for you, Justin. After all, you are a man of vast experience
in that particular arena, are you not?"
It was a rare occasion to see Justin discomfited;
Julianna savored it.
"Besides," she went on mildly, "there
is no need. While I am not a woman of excessive skill,
I do pride myself on my imagination—to say nothing
of the fact that I became quite adept at listening
at keyholes in my younger years when the two of you
were in your cups. I garnered quite an education, shall
we say. Therefore, I predict no shortcomings in that
Sebastian straightened himself to his full
height. "The devil you say—"
"Julianna!" Justin was saying. "Now
"Stop looking so disapproving, both of you." They
both appeared so shocked that Julianna couldn't withhold
Little did she know it would be the last time
she laughed that day.
While her brothers were still glowering at
her, her gaze shifted to the nave of the church.
From the time she was a child, Julianna had
cherished dreams of being married in St. George's
at Hanover Square, built nearly a hundred years
earlier—why, the marriage of the king's
son, Prince Augustus had taken place there
in grand fashion! And thanks to Sebastian,
the fanciful dreams of a child were about to
become a reality—it was he who insisted
her wedding take place at St. George's.
Julianna did not argue. It wasn't simply that
it was just because of a child's fanciful dream;
she knew, too, that for Sebastian, it was a
symbol of prosperity and success.
They had come such a long, long way, the three
of them, since the days when Society shunned
the Sterlings. Upon their father's death, it
was Sebastian who had restored respectability
to their name.
The box pews on either side of the aisle were
filled to overflowing. But Julianna noted several
heads had begun to turn, traveling from the
back of the church where they stood just to
the side of the doors, to the front near the
sanctuary . . .
Where Thomas should have awaited her.
An uneasy knot had begun to gather in the pit
of her belly. "I daresay fully half the
ton is here," she murmured.
"I do believe you'd have invited the whole of
England had Sebastian allowed it," Justin said
with a faint smile. Sebastian made no comment.
In the west gallery, the organist coughed.
The church was still. The organist sat waiting
in the west gallery for a signal from Reverend
Hodgson, who had begun to shift from one foot
to the other.
Several minutes later, Sebastian reached for
his pocket watch and flipped it open, his expression
grim. The ceremony was set for one o'clock.
It was now nearly a quarter past the hour.
Julianna could not bear to look inside the
church. The faces of the guests had turned
from mild inquiry to pitying glances; the whispers
had turned into an ominous hush.
Julianna looked up at Sebastian imploringly. "Something's
wrong," she said, her voice low. "Thomas
should have arrived by now."
Justin was not so generous. His features were
tight-lipped. "He'd better have an explanation
for this. My God, late for his own wedding—"
"Justin! Thomas is a good man, a compassionate
man, the best of men. You know as well as I that he
has a heart of gold!"
"Then where the devil is he?" growled Justin.
Julianna began to fret. "Oh, a dreadful
accident has surely befallen him, for there
is nothing that would keep him from this day!
He is an honorable man. He—" her
voice cracked "—otherwise he would
be here. He will be here! There must be some
reason . . . "
And so there was.
The side door opened. Three sets of eyes swiveled
sharply when Samuel, Thomas's brother, stepped
It was just like Justin not to bandy words. "Egad,
man, where is Thomas?"
Sebastian stepped forward as well. "Yes," he
said sharply. "Where is he?"
Samuel stepped before Julianna. She could barely
breathe. His bearing was such that it seemed
he carried the weight of the universe on his
Something was horribly, horribly wrong. She
sensed it. She knew it. "Samuel. Samuel,
tell me what's wrong!"
It was only later that she realized she should
have known . . . His gaze avoided hers. "I'm
sorry, Julianna. But Thomas is gone."
Her heart gave a feeble thud. "Gone?" she
"Yes. A note was delivered to me a short while
ago. Oh, but I know not how to tell you this! Last
night, you see—last night he left for Gretna
Greene . . . with Clarice Grey."
Shocked, Samuel raised anxious eyes to Julianna. "Julianna," he
ventured tentatively, "did you hear me?"
Julianna stared. This couldn't be happening.
It was a dream. Nay, a nightmare! Her heart
was as cold as the stone beneath her slippers.
Behind her there was a collective gasp.
"Gretna Greene!" someone was saying. "He's
eloped to Gretna Greene with another woman!"
And then it was spreading through the church,
like a flame set to tinder, until her ears
were roaring and she couldn't even think. And
everyone was staring at her. She felt the touch
of their eyes like shards of glass digging
into her skin. She felt barren. Naked, as never
She had little memory of leaving the church.
Sebastian and Justin hustled her outside and
into the carriage, shielding her from the gaping
stars of the guests who had already begun to
file from the nave.
By the time they rolled up in front of Sebastian's
town house, she had yet to speak. Justin was
still swearing, muttering something about a
duel when he leaped from the carriage.
Sebastian touched her shoulder. "Julianna?" he
murmured. "Jules, are you all right?"
perfectly fine," she
heard herself say in utterly
precise tones. But she
wasn't. Inside she was
cringing. With utter calm
she turned her head toward
"There will be a scandal, won't there?"
A ghost of a smile crept across Sebastian's
lips. "We're Sterlings, Jules. Perhaps
it's inevitable. But we've weathered scandal
before, haven't we?"
He meant to comfort, she knew. Yet how easy
for him to say. After all, he was a man. It
was easier for men. Men weren't branded as
spinsters. As ape-leaders. Some old windbag
wouldn't forever be whispering behind her fan
about how he had been deserted on his wedding
day . . .
She wanted to weep, to cry, to hurl herself
into Sebastian's arms and sob out her heartache.
As a child, he was the one who soothed her
hurts and scrapes.
But this was a hurt he could not heal.
Through eyes so dry they hurt, she stared at
him, pressing her lips together. She dared
not blink, for she knew the tears would begin
in earnest then. He searched her face endlessly,
and she wondered if he could see the gash in
her heart, the twist in her soul. She tried
to be brave. She would be brave. She wouldn't
cry. She wouldn't weep. Not yet. Not yet.
For that would come later.
Sebastian leaped out, then extended a hand.
Julianna took it, alighting from the carriage.
As she stepped toward the house, she felt the
warming kiss of the sun upon her head. Mocking
her, reviling her.
It was all gone, she thought wildly. All gone
. . . her girlish hopes, her fanciful dreams.
She wanted to curl up into a ball and sob her
For something had happened today. She was forever
It was a perfect night for thievery.
From beneath the crowning shelter of an aged
oak tree, the figure on horseback surveyed
the roadway. The hour was late, and with a
sliver of moon slumbering behind a wisp of
a cloud, the night was as dark and depthless
as the yawning pits of hell. The faint rush
of the wind sighed through the tree limbs to
sing a plaintive, lonesome melody.
All the better to conceal his presence. All
the better to aid his endeavor. All the better
to await his opportunity.
Dressed wholly in black, from his hat to the
soles of his boots. A dark mask obscured all
but the glint of his eyes. He sat his mount—Percival—like
a man accustomed to long hours on horseback,
his posture straight as an arrow, betraying
no hint of weariness . . . and with the silent
stealth of a man who knew well and true that
his presence must be concealed at all costs,
until such time as he deemed the right time
Lest his very life be forfeit.
And the man known as the Magpie had no desire
to meet his Maker.
Percival's ears pricked forward. Black-gloved
fingers tightened on the reins. Squeezing his
knees, he stilled the massive horse's movement.
A fingertip pressed gently over his neck. "Wait," he
The powerful animal quieted beneath his touch,
but he could feel his muscles bunched and knotted,
ready to spring into action.
With narrowed eyes, the man squinted into the
encroaching darkness, directly to the east.
This was not his first night masquerading as
the Magpie. Nor would it be his last. Not until
his purpose was accomplished to his satisfaction.
Beneath the black silk mask, a faint smile
appeared. A familiar rush of excitement raced
along his veins, an excitement he could not
deny that he relished. His heartbeat quickened,
for the pounding of hoofbeats had reached his
ears as well as Percival's. The light from
a dim yellow lantern had now appeared as well,
bobbing the distance.
He waited until it was within sight, for he
was not a man to make mistakes. As if on cue—damn,
but he had the devil's own luck!—the
moon slid out from behind the cloud. The Magpie
lifted his reins, broke free of the waist-high
grasses beside the road and stationed himself
directly in the path of the lumbering coach.
When he saw him, the coachman stood on the
box and hauled on the reins. With a jingle
of the harness and a shout from the coachman,
the vehicle rolled to a halt.
Coolly the Magpie raised a pair of pistols
dead-center at the man.
"Stand and deliver!" came his cool demand.
Hours earlier, Julianna seized her skirt and
ran across the courtyard at the inn, zigzagging
to avoid the puddles left by yesterday's rain. "Wait!" she
The driver clearly was not particularly disposed
to patience. He glared at her. "Ye'd better
hurry, mum," he grunted. "We're late
Late. Yes, that was certainly the word of the
day. There was a thump as her trunk was loaded.
And by Jove, she was determined to reach Bath,
if not by tonight, then tomorrow.
Nothing about this journey had gone according
to plan. Traveling by public coach had not been
in the plan. Unfortunately, she'd missed the
speedy mail coach.
Breathless, Julianna hurtled herself inside.
She'd barely seated herself when the door closed
and the contraption lurched forward.
There were three passengers besides herself,
an elderly woman, another woman with a huge,
drooping bonnet and a man next to her that Julianna
guessed was her husband.
Julianna found herself next to the old woman. "Good
day to all of you," she greeted pleasantly.
"Good day to ye," nodded the old woman.
The other woman eyed her gray-striped traveling
gown curiously. "Are ye traveling alone
Madam? Mercy, but at twenty-seven, had she begun
to age so dreadfully then?
"I am," Julianna returned evenly. "My
maid and I were en route to Bath—I recently bought
a house there, you see—when she became ill early
in the afternoon. We stopped and spent the night at
the inn. I'd hoped she would be quite recovered by
today, but I fear that was not the case. But by this
afternoon, it was clear poor Peggy was in no condition
to travel the remainder of the way to Bath, so I sent
her back to London in my carriage." The fact that
Julianna was unaccompanied didn't bother her in the
"That was most kind of ye, mum," said the
other woman. "But we aren't traveling as far as
Bath. And the roads aren't safe after dark."
Her husband sent her a censuring glance. "Leticia!
'Tis hardly your affair."
"Don't look at me like that, Charles. You know
it's true! There's that terrible highwayman, the Magpie.
What will come next, I ask! Why, the wretched man may
very well murder us in our beds, every one of us!" She
cast an imploring glance at the elderly woman next
to Julianna. "Mother, tell him!"
The old lady folded her hands and bobbed her
head. "It's quite true, Charles," she
said, her eyes round. "Oh, he's quite a
horrid fellow, this Magpie."
"You see?" Leticia transferred her gaze to
"I thank you for your concern, Mrs. . . " Julianna
"Chadwick, Leticia and Charles," the woman
said briskly. "And my mother is Mrs. Nelson. You've
heard of him, haven't you? The Magpie?"
Julianna's mouth quirked. The London newspapers
had been full of the Magpie's exploits—he
was becoming quite the infamous brigand. Perhaps
she was growing jaded, but it occurred to her
that perhaps his reputation had been exaggerated,
merely for the sake of selling more newspapers.
Indeed, she would have almost welcomed an encounter
with the Magpie, thus named for his cheekiness
in robbing a coach carrying the private secretary
of the Prime Minister himself, the Earl of Liverpool—a
daring if not foolhardy deed, to be sure.
But to think that they would be robbed by this
notorious highwayman-she dismissed the notion
out of hand. Still, she was reminded of her own
rather mundane existence.
Three years ago, Sebastian had wed, and Julianna
had taken it upon herself to move out of the
family residence. The shame and scandal of being
stranded at the altar had been difficult to bear.
Julianna counted herself a realist, and she was
aware the experience had not left her unscathed.
But she liked to think she was at least somewhat
wiser. She'd floundered for a time, spending
months in Europe, dreading the day she must face
the ton again.
What a shock it had been when she returned to
London on the eve of Sebastian's wedding!
It was then that she'd realized it was time to
face life head-on. There could be no more hiding
away, for what would that accomplish? She and
Justin and Sebastian would always be close—the
circumstances of their childhood had seen to
that. She lived quite comfortably on her allowance
from Sebastian, but she had made some investments
of her own which allowed her to purchase a modest
town house in London, and her newest acquisition,
a lovely little manor house in Bath.
was proud of her accomplishments,
for she had discovered a courage
and a dignity she hadn't known
she possessed. It had begun
that long-ago night when Thomas
and Clarice had returned from
Gretna Green. Apologetic and
contrite, Thomas had come to
"I know my marriage to Clarice must have come
as a shock," he'd said. "I can offer no excuse
except one . . . Clarice is carrying my child, Julianna."
In shocked, muted silence Julianna listened while
Thomas relayed how Clarice had come to him in
tears the night before they—Julianna and
Thomas—were to wed.
"I cannot deny what I have done, Julianna. Clarice
and I have been friends since we were children. We
succumbed to a moment of weakness—a moment of
abandon. It was wrong. I knew it. But I told myself
you would never know. Indeed both Clarice and I agreed
that we could not continue to see each other. But when
she came to me and confessed that she was with child,
I could not deny her. Honor and duty compelled that
I do the right thing and marry Clarice. And so I did.
I will regret to the end of my days if I hurt you,
Julianna. But it was the right thing to do."
If he had hurt her. He knew that he had. He knew
that she'd loved him madly . . . And honor and
duty. Well, those were things that Julianna understood,
and so did her brothers. Indeed, it was all that
had stopped Justin from calling him out. Oh,
yes, she had understood . . .
In time, she had forgiven him. In time . . .
for that, too, was the right thing to do.
But never would she forget. Never.
The pain and bitter hurt had faded. They were
but a twinge in the region of her heart. But
no man would ever turn her head again. Never
again would she be so gullible, so trusting.
She would rather be old and alone than to marry
simply for the sake of marrying.
For despite the abominable circumstances of their
youth—their mother's abandonment, their
father's disregard—Julianna had never lost
faith in the sanctity of marriage. A nurturer,
Sebastian had always called her, sweet and soft-hearted,
always taking care of others.
It was true, she supposed. Oh, yes, it was in
her nature to be a wife, a mother. She'd once
speculated that it was the fact that their mother
had run off with her lover which instilled in
Julianna the desire to be everything their own
mother was not. Indeed, Julianna had once been
convinced that the whole sordid make-up of her
parents' relationship had simply made her all
the more determined that when she, Julianna,
married—and as a child she had somehow
never doubted that she would—it would be
for love . . . and love alone. Ah, yes, the longing
for a husband and children was something that
only grew stronger as she grew older. Forever
it seemed she had planned the day of her wedding
. . .
Oddly, it no longer hurt to think of that day.
What hurt was knowing she would never have a
child of her own. No, there would be no children.
For there would be no husband.
And that particular heartache was one which had
taken a long time to accept—and remained
a secret locked tight in her breast for all eternity.
She would never experience the joy of a child
snug against her breasts . . . her child. For
a husband was beyond her reach—perhaps
more aptly, beyond her desire. And so she had
buried the yearning for a child.
For it could never be.
No, when was no longer quite so carefree, seeing
only the good in the world. As for the Magpies
of the world, well, in time he would surely get
"I daresay all the Kingdom has heard of the Magpie," she
Mrs. Chadwick eyed her. "Are you not afraid?"
"Afraid of a man I cannot see, a man I've yet
to meet?" Smiling, Julianna shook her head, mildly
amused. Reports of such men and their misdeeds had
fallen off in these last few years. The notion of a
highwayman made her shiver, but not in dread. Why,
if she were given to such fancies, the notion might
be almost romantic!
Now, if he were to leap through that door—" she
nodded "—I might be inclined to say
"Oh, but you should be afraid. That's a pretty
bauble at your throat. No doubt he would take great
pleasure in relieving you of it. That and more." Mrs.
Chadwick nodded knowingly.
Julianna raised her brows.
"Oh, indeed," put in her mother. "Why,
the tales we've heard . . . Why, they're not to be
spoken of in polite company."
Mr. Chadwick finally spoke. "What nonsense
"'Tis not nonsense, Charles!" His wife thrust
her chin out. "A lady would not want to fall into
his hands, for she would surely suffer a fate worse
than death, and I think I need not expound on the matter!
The man is a devil—'tis said he even has the
devil's eyes—and everyone knows it!"
Her meaning was not lost on Julianna, whose smile
froze. Until that moment, she'd actually found
herself wishing for a little adventure . . .
She chewed the inside of her cheek and reconsidered.
For all the notoriety surrounding the Magpie,
the papers in London had said nothing of him
Wringing her hands, Mrs. Chadwick glanced anxiously
out the window. "Oh, but I do hope the driver
hurries. I want to be home before dark. I won't
feel safe until we're settled before the fire
with a nice cuppa."
Charles Chadwick lifted his gaze heavenward. "For
the love of God, missus, will you stop your whinin'!
If the Magpie should waylay us, by God, I swear
I shall put you on his horse myself and bid you
Mrs. Chadwick gasped. "Well, I never!" Her
mother glared daggers at her son-in-law.
Julianna directed her eyes to her lap, biting
back a laugh. The four of them lapsed into silence.
They passed through several more villages but
no more passengers alighted. It was late in the
afternoon when the coach began to slow. Leticia
Chadwick had scooted to the edge of their seat
even before they came to a halt before a small
tavern. "At last," she nearly sang
out, then turned to Julianna. "May your
journey be a safe one."
Julianna smiled her good-bye, welcoming the rush
of clean air that swept in when the door opened.
It was cool and fresh, with no stench of coal
and smoke. It was good to be away from London,
she decided. The decision to go to Bath had been
an impetuous one, but she would so enjoy the
chance to rest and catch her breath from the
hectic pace of the Season, which was in full
The trio disembarked. Julianna had wondered about
their state of marital bliss—they were
clearly not in the first blush of youth. She
looked on when Charles Chadwick took his wife's
arm protectively as they crossed the street.
Leticia glanced up at him, a wisp of a smile
on her lips. An odd ache filled Julianna's throat,
an ache for what might have been . . .
Deliberately she looked away.
No other passengers boarded. The coach did not
linger. The driver shouted and they were off.
The wheels cracked and rumbled as they began
to gain speed.
It wasn't long before the walls of darkness began
to close in. She found herself peering out the
window, anxiously searching the side of the road,
trying to see behind every tree and bush until
she began to grow dizzy. Oh, but this was silly,
she chided herself, to allow herself to be spooked
by the Chadwicks' talk of highwaymen!
She forced herself to relax. Eventually, the
sway and lurch of the coach lulled her into drowsiness.
Swaying with the rhythm of the coach, her eyes
The next thing she felt herself tumbling to the
floor. Jarred into wakefulness, she opened her
eyes, rubbing her shoulder where she'd landed.
What the deuce . . ? Panic enveloped her; it
was pitch black inside the coach.
And outside as well.
She was just about to heave herself back onto
the cushions when the sound of male voices punctuated
the air outside. The coachman . . . and someone
"Put it down, I s-say!" the coachman stuttered. "There's
nothing of value aboard, I swear! Mercy," the
man blubbered. "I beg of you, have mercy!"
Even as a decidedly prickly unease slid down
her spine, the door was wrenched open. She found
herself staring at the gleaming barrels of twin
pistols. In terror she lifted her gaze to the
man who possessed them.
Garbed in black he was, from the enveloping folds
of his cloak to the kerchief that obscured the
lower half of his face. A silk mask was tied
around his eyes; they were all that was visible
of his features. Even in the dark, there was
no mistaking their color. They glimmered like
clear, golden fire, pale and unearthly.
The devil's eyes.
"Nothing of value aboard, eh?"
A gust of chill night air funneled in. Yet it
was like nothing compared to the chill she felt
in hearing that voice. . . So softly querulous,
like steel tearing through tightly stretched
silk, she decided dazedly.
She had always despised silly, weak, helpless
females. Yet when his gaze raked over her—through
her, bold and ever so irreverent!—she felt
stripped to the bone.
Goosebumps rose on her flesh. She couldn't move.
She most certainly couldn't speak. She could
not even swallow past the knot lodged deep in
her throat. Fear numbed her mind. Her mouth was
dry with a sickly dread such as she had never
experienced. All she could think was that if
Mrs. Chadwick were here, she might take great
delight in knowing she'd been right to be so
fearful. For somehow Julianna knew with a mind-chilling
certainty that it was he . . .
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