Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Abbey is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year…
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About the Author
Jo Beverley is widely regarded as one of the most talented romance writers today. She is a four-time winner of Romance Writers of America's cherished RITA Award and one of only a handful of members in the RITA Hall of Fame. She has also received the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award. Born in England, she now lives with her husband and two sons in Victoria, British Columbia, just a ferry ride away from Seattle, WA.
Joanna Bourne is the author of The Spymaster's Lady and My Lord and Spymaster, and the coauthor, with Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Patricia Rice, Nicola Cornick, Cara Elliott, Anne Gracie, and Susan King, of The Last Chance Christmas Ball. Together, these authors are the ladies otherwise known as the Word Wenches. They have written a combined 231 novels and 74 novellas. They’ve won awards such as the RITA Award, RT Career Achievement award, RT Living Legend, and RT Reviewers' Choice award. Several of them are regulars on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Learn more at www.wordwenches.com.
Nicola Cornick is a USA Today bestselling author of historical romance. She has been described as a “rising star” by Publishers Weekly and has had her books nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award and the RITA Awards. Her novels include One Night with the Laird, Lady Allerton’s Wager, and Mistress by Midnight. Visit her online at nicolacornick.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Chance Christmas Ball
By Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All rights reserved.
My True Love Hath My Heart
December 24, Christmas Eve
He watched her emerge from the servants' stairs into the hall, a neat, straight, slender figure in a dark dress and white apron. He'd known she would come. He'd been waiting for her — not patiently, but with his blood pumping in anticipation.
Nick Lafford stood at the window at the end of the corridor, backed by the light. A good place to observe and remain unobserved. When he saw the door open, before Claire — his Claire — stepped into the hall, he turned toward the window as if he were interested in the scene outside. He hid his face.
It was midmorning with a gray sky and heavy snow falling. A carriage, emptied of its visitors, was being driven around to the stables. Nothing else moved in the landscape of outbuildings.
She'd notice him as she headed down the hall — the outline of a man looking out at the weather — but she wouldn't recognize him. She didn't know he was at Holbourne Abbey. She'd dismiss him as another well-tailored guest here at Holbourne Abbey for the house party. A friend of Edward's maybe, the right age to be a soldier, newly discharged.
She was dressed as an upstairs maid, neat and proper and trying to be prim. If he wanted to be picky about it, her clothing was a little too fine, the fabric too expensive for a servant to wear at work. Her mobcap trailed a pair of long flirty ribbons at the back. That was vanity on her part and he loved her for it.
A plump older maid, a brown hen of a woman, bustled along the hall ahead of her, all good humor, chattering. Claire followed with the air of a sleek cat that had somehow been adopted into a family of chickens. She carried clean towels and a jug of water. She'd stuck a white dusting cloth into the waistband of her apron. That would be an indictable offense among housemaids, he imagined. The housekeeper would scold her if she got caught.
She was jaunty and intent, thoroughly herself in her borrowed persona. Even the mobcap perched on her head in an impudent, Claire way. If she'd been walking down Bond Street dressed as she should be in one of her flowing, jewel-colored frocks, heads would turn when she passed. Female heads, envious and a little disapproving. Male heads, in admiration.
When she and the other maid had gone inside Gower's room, Nick stayed where he was, watching the door, being ordinary. Just another guest here to enjoy the festivities of Christmas Eve.
But he and Claire weren't ordinary. They were both outsiders. A little dangerous sometimes. Disingenuous at best, downright liars at worst. They were made for each other.
Claire followed Anna down the hall. The housekeeper sent the maids out two by two when they went to set the rooms in order. She'd paired the newly hired London maid with plump, good-natured Anna, who knew the foibles and secrets of all the guests and didn't mind sharing them.
Anna turned the knob and pushed the door open with her hip. They were in Gower's bedroom at last. This was the Red Room, with walls the color of aged burgundy wine and fierce, masculine hunting scenes in the pictures. The bronze figures on the mantelpiece were, on the left, Mercury in a hurry and, on the right, some unhappy Celt with an arrow in his thigh. Maybe Gower was given this room in the hope it would shorten his stay.
"A fine-looking gentleman." Anna was looking back at the door. "Interested in ye, I think."
"Who?" Her mind wasn't on the burning question of fine-looking gentlemen. She was planning how to rifle the room.
"The gentleman in the hall. He was sneaking a peek, I think. Ye have an admirer. More what ye be used to dealing with, I imagine."
There it was again. Everyone from the butler to the scullery maid knew she wasn't what she pretended to be. She might fool the guests, but the servants had figured it out before she'd been in the house an hour. They played along, but she hadn't fooled them one jot.
She could hardly ask what mistakes she made.
Feeling baffled, she tossed pillows off the bed and stripped down the sheets, airing them out for a minute before they remade the bed. She said, "I've given up men altogether," which was true enough.
"Ye'll be one of the few. We'll have some fine old giggling and bussing tonight, now they've hung the kissing bough in the kitchen door. Them valets up from the south are a cheeky lot."
Gower had tumbled his bedclothes off the bed on both sides. Be nice to think that was a night tussling with a guilty conscience. Probably a restless night after gorging himself at the table.
Gower's daughter, who had the Rose Room down the hall, left barely a dent on her pillow. She must lie still as a doll all night long. The daughter had brought dozens of expensive dresses, but not one single jewel. Only two empty jewel cases.
So many secrets a maidservant discovered. She'd had no idea.
Anna continued talking, ending up with, "He'd warm a bed on a cold night, that one. Fine figure of a man, don't ye think?"
It was a measure of how little she'd been paying attention that she had to say, "Who?"
"Bless ye, child, no. The man watching you in the hall. Something familiar about him I canna put my finger on, but he looked a proper gentleman."
"I didn't notice." There was only one man she was remotely interested in and he was in Paris. Or Lyon or St. Petersburg. Wherever the Foreign Office needed someone to pull chestnuts out of a fire. He was far away, in any case, and she didn't care in the least.
Redoing the bed came next, before she dusted. There were orders of precedence in the cleaning of a room, as strictly kept as any royal processional.
"Hold a twitch while I scrub. I'm that mucky from tending fires." Anna plunged her hands in the water bucket up to the elbow. "There was a time I would 'uv spared a glance for a man like that. A glance and mayhap a smile."
"I will bob a curtsey at him if the chance presents itself." She'd practiced her curtseys. She was proud of them.
They pulled the sheets and blankets back up the length of the bed. Smoothed and retucked everything, layer by layer. The coverlet came last. "Grab the corner, dearie," Anna said, "and up we go. What was I talking about?"
"Kissing, I think. You were in favor of it."
"Aye. I wouldna have done anything, mind you," Anna said. "I was more than happy with my John William all those years. But a girl should look. The good Lord made men to be appreciated."
"I'll make a point of looking him over if he's still in the hall when I leave." But she wouldn't. She'd only just shaken herself free of one wellborn, arrogant, son-of-a-bitch aristocrat. She had no intention of acquiring another.
"Ye do that, love." Anna went back to mending the fire.
As duties were divided, the other maid's part — her part — was to chase dust. So she ran a damp cloth over every surface, looking into all the corners as she went. She didn't expect any useful revelations. Gower wouldn't hide the Coeur de Flamme anywhere a maid dusted. He wouldn't hide it among his clothing in the tallboy. His valet would sort through that and Gower wasn't the man to trust his valet.
Nick would have searched this room foot by foot, painstakingly, meticulously. He'd have gone flat on his belly, peering and prying underneath that tallboy and that dresser and the desk. Nick would —
She had no intention of thinking about what Nick would do.
She opened the window and shook her cloth out in the falling snow. It would be hard to get out of this window using a rope ladder. Someone skilled or desperate might try it.
Anna leaned back on her heels to admire her work with the fire. She gave the tiles of the surround one last loving swipe. "Neat as ninepence."
Close the window. Set the latch. "Why ninepence, I wonder? Is a sixpence less tidy? Are shillings sluttish?"
"Wouldn't surprise me." Anna shot her one of those sidewise looks that meant, "You are odd as a three-legged cow," and stood, one hand pressed to her back, huffing out a little sigh of relief. "I'll leave ye to the dusting, then, and be off to see if Miss Effington has pried herself upright this fine morning." She collected her brushes and scooped dirty towels from the floor. "It's a wonder rich folk don't get bored, lying abed till the day's half done. And on Christmas Eve, too. If you ask me, the gentry don't have half the fun we do downstairs."
She was one of the rich folk, she supposed. Her shops brought in more income than most estates. Trading jewels in Antwerp was even more profitable. But every day of her life she'd been up with the sun. When she was young, it had been to grind coffee, keep order among the apprentices, prepare the shop for opening. Her grandmother kept old-fashioned ways. Nowadays waking early let her catch the sunlight for her work. She matched jewels by natural light, always.
"No accounting for gentlefolk. Kittle cattle." Anna wended her way with a click and clink of her pail. She left behind the privacy nefarious deeds require.
"All mine," Claire whispered, turning in a circle. Was there anything more satisfying than being solitary in a room you planned to poke about in?
She pulled out drawers and opened glove boxes to her heart's content. Studied Gower's collection of poorly cut rings and shirt buttons in the flat box in the top drawer. On top of the oak wardrobe, a hatbox with a hat in it. Opening the doors, she found boots standing in a row along the front. Behind that, a stack of hand luggage and boxes.
Promising. Promising. A riding crop on top. Under that, a gentleman's traveling kit with recesses for comb, brush, scissors, soap, razor. Most of that was laid out on the washstand. Next down. A portable writing desk. Ink, quills, sealing wax, and blank paper. A ledger that was coy about the accounts. She'd cut her teeth on account books and recognized shady dealing when she saw it. A hidden drawer — all of these writing desks had a hidden drawer — full of banknotes.
Fascinating though this glimpse into Mr. Gower's mind might be, it wasn't what she wanted.
The next box down was ... the kindest word was "unlovely." The workmanship was poor and the proportions ill-chosen. But the contents rattled and shifted when she picked it up.
And finally she'd come to something that was locked. Oh good.
She set it on a shelf at eye level and went to work with her bent probes. Even an amateur — she was happy to consider herself an amateur in the craft of lock picking — needed only a handful of minutes to get it open. In more exigent circumstances she could have broken the box apart with a rock. Or pried the lid up with a kitchen knife. Or tucked the whole thing under her arm and walked away with it. Obviously, in the life of a housemaid the opportunities for theft were endless.
The lock turned.
Behold jewelry. Here was a tray holding a dozen jewel cases, each about the size of her palm. Florentine leather, blue and green. She lifted out the tray and found a melee of gold and bright jewels tossed together haphazardly.
Gower kept his daughter's baubles locked away in his room, hidden in the bottom of the wardrobe. Why? It looked as if he'd emptied the contents of two or three jewelry boxes in here and carted it off. A monkey trove of treasure, with a monkey's feckless disregard for scratched pearls or dented gold.
There'd be a mean-spirited story behind this. A fight between father and daughter. Punishment? She could almost feel sorry for the woman.
She ran her fingers through bracelets and tangled necklaces and felt the shapes in the small velvet bags. She couldn't help thinking the stones were ill-suited to the daughter's pretty fairness. She priced as she fingered through — this was her business, after all. Thirty guineas for that sapphire bracelet. A fussy design and the stones were poorly matched. Forty for the topaz pendant. This huge broach should be broken down for the stones because it was hideous.
The Coeur wasn't in this angry jumble. Gower, who tossed fragile pearls and brittle jade into that clinking chaos, probably kept his diamond cushioned safe in one of these pretty leather cases. A diamond that was almost impossible to damage.
The upper tray, then. The first leather case held a ruby necklace. Very nice. The second case was lighter. She —
"I always wondered what housemaids did in their leisure time." The voice came from the door. "Theft, apparently."
There was an instant like lightning — filled with a flash of recognition in the midst of blank surprise. She recognized him at once. How could she not? Nobody else spoke like silk over steel. Like honey and granite rock. Rough with laughter, sarcastic over the card table, whispered across a pillow — that was not a voice one forgot. She turned slowly to face him.
Nick Lafford stood in the doorway, a man not taking his dismissal seriously. She was furious with him. She was impatient and unforgiving. And everything inside her, heart, mind, and spirit was glad to see him.
He closed the door behind him and strolled into the room. Time flowed sluggishly around him, giving her a long opportunity to feel five or six emotions in a row, all of them complicated and contradictory.
"Picture of a maid dusting the jewelry," he said. "How thorough of you."
"Searching it, actually."
"We rise above the banal, then. I always enjoy rising about the banal with you." He came to look past her into the box on the wardrobe shelf. "We have the very likeness of plunder. I feel quite piratical. Is it immensely valuable?"
"Not so far." She closed the leather case with the rubies and put it firmly back in the tray. "If they were vegetables, this would largely be a pile of potatoes."
"Not counting the Coeur de Flamme." Nick wore one of his deceptively open expressions.
"Not counting the Coeur, which I haven't found yet. What in the name of sanity are you doing here?"
"I appear to have joined you in ransacking with intent. Embarrassing if I'm caught at it." He leaned to look into the jewel box and they touched, just a little. A brush of his jacket on her shoulder. A feeling of warmth at her side. Nothing really.
He said, "I'll bet these dainty little boxes contain the good stuff."
"Almost certainly. Go away, Nick."
"I don't think so. You may, eventually, be glad I'm here." He stirred a finger into the jewels, inquisitive. "Or, of course, you may not. But I'm here anyway."
This was so typical of him. Ready to filch jewels at her side or lead her onto the dance floor in Vienna in front of the assembled nobility of Europe. Once, he'd helped her relocate an inconvenient body. Once —
Blast him for being Nicholas. For being sneaky and single-minded and never giving up. For being clever enough to move her like a chess piece to this time and this place. For saying he loved her.
Blast her for being happy to see him again, even for a minute.
She squashed down the anticipation and gladness that was springing up inside her like so many bubbles rising to the top of beer. She concentrated on being stern. He'd taken her by surprise. That was all. Nothing had changed.
He hooked up entangled necklaces and bracelets and let them dangle. "What a hoard for a man to lug about the north country. They almost beg to be stolen, don't they?"
"I hear their siren call. 'Pick me up and carry me away,' they say. Surely he won't miss a few."
"I'm busy, Nick. I don't have time for this."
"And we're not thieves, like the regrettable Mr. Gower." When she didn't comment he said, "The money doesn't matter, does it? He didn't just cheat you out of money. He stole your work. He tried to steal your good name."
Nick understood. That was what made him so insidious. He'd always understood her.
She batted his hand out of the way and picked up the next leather case. "You contrived this. It's not some cosmic mischance."
"Humbly, I admit it. I arranged for a guest list to the house party to land in the papers. You saw it. You're here."
"I should have been suspicious."
"I'm delighted you weren't. It means you're here." He gestured a circle, taking in the jewels, the rest of the room, Holbourne Abbey, and Northumberland. "Instead of breaking into Gower's town house. He keeps guards. With guns."
"Guns in his garden and the unbreakable safe he brags about. I hope someone robs it one fine evening, but it won't be me. Damn you for interfering."
"I can't help myself, you know. Indulged from childhood. No self-discipline."
He hadn't changed a whit in the months since she'd sent him away. Still the perfect English aristocrat, casually confident, wrapped in the armor of first-class tailoring. Still the long, intelligent, handsome face that didn't show a tenth of what he was thinking. Brown hair in fashionable disorder. Brown eyes carefully controlled in what they revealed.
She said, "I don't have time to chatter with you. Anybody could walk in."
"The door's locked. You don't think I neglected to steal a key." He reached past her and selected a leather jewel case, flicked it open, and found emeralds. "This is nice."
Excerpted from The Last Chance Christmas Ball by Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly. Copyright © 2015 Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue Jo Beverley,
My True Love Hath My Heart Joanna Bourne,
A Scottish Carol Susan King,
Christmas Larks Patricia Rice,
In the Bleak Midwinter Mary Jo Putney,
Old Flames Dance Cara Elliott,
A Season for Marriage Nicola Cornick,
Miss Finch and the Angel Jo Beverley,
Mistletoe Kisses Anne Gracie,