A Ruined Feast on Christmas Eve - Emma Wildes
Emma Wildes is the national bestselling, award-winning author of over thirty (uhm, warning, some are kind of on the naughty side) novels and novellas, mostly set in Regency England.
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Happy holidays to everyone. I wish one and all a very lovely season of joy, family, and of course…happy reading. I remember books always being one of my favorite gifts as a child (could it be a sign of what was to come?), and you know what, they still are. Give me a good book, a comfy corner chair with a decent reading light, and a nice cup of coffee. Ah, happiness.
My theme to celebrate the season features the enigmatic Earl of Heathton and his lovely young wife, Alicia. As a couple they have been fun to write (appearing in Ruined by Moonlight, September, 2012, Signet Eclipse, and also in A Most Improper Rumor, out in March of 2013) because while Lord Heathton is a very reserved, very private man who dabbled in some espionage in the past, he is so much the antithesis of his spirited wife that the clash makes for some interesting chemistry. She is certainly not the biddable female he thought he was marrying, and he isn’t exactly easy for her to understand either.
Ah, love. I have been having loads of fun with how much they confound one another.
I hope you enjoy!
Best to all and a joyous season,
A Slightly Imperfect Christmas
by Emma Wildes
Everything was in place, and, if she said so herself, perfection.
Alicia Wallace eyed the table with satisfaction, noting the pristine white linens, the gleaming china, the polished silver…
Her husband should be home soon, and then the guests would be arriving shortly thereafter, and all was moving along very smoothly.
Ben wasn’t home yet, but he was, after all, a very busy man.
The house smelled festive, with the rich aromas of roast meat and baking bread and a hint of cinnamon from the pudding, and she had every single detail planned to the last moment.
Everything was going absolutely according to her carefully structured schedule.
This was going to be the party of the season.
He was unforgivably late.
Worse than that, he was bleeding everywhere.
This was going to be awkward.
Benjamin Wallace, the Earl of Heathton eased off his horse and contemplated the queue of vehicles in front of the Mayfair mansion he’d inherited along with the title. It wasn’t like he’d wanted to host this party, but his wife had insisted, and truthfully, he rarely denied her.
It was a weakness, he decided, standing there by the back garden gate with blood dripping down his arm, contemplating which entrance to use. A bad habit he needed to shed…but for now, what he really needed to do besides slip inside unnoticed, was somehow to slog through this evening with a smile on his face despite that a ball had torn through his upper arm.
Could a man actually accomplish that?
He wasn’t sure. But he could sure as the devil give it a try.
He turned and found the man who had accompanied him home watching him with a critical eye. Ben said neutrally, “I’m fine. Just giving myself a second before I try to go in.”
Young Sharpe was a great deal more than a colleague, he was an ally. “You are bleeding badly enough I would call for a physician were it me.”
“It didn’t break the bone.”
“No, but it needs stitched. At least acknowledge that.”
He gave his friend—and yes, he counted him as such despite their difference in rank—a level look. “You are not married, and not expected to host a dinner party this particular eve. I’d rather face a column of advancing French soldiers than disappoint my wife. No doctor at this time, but thank you for the advice.”
“Later. I can’t afford to disappoint her and the arrival of a physician would certainly not lend a festive air, now would it.”
Sharpe, usually elusive and cynical, said, “As you wish, guv. Good luck with your endeavor to act as if nothing has happen this evening. Mayhaps I’m lucky I’ve never been in love. My guess is you’ll disappoint her severely should that shoulder fester and you expire from the wound.”
Then he disappeared into the shadows.
Never been in love? Not true. Ben knew full well his friend had been very deeply infatuated once before, but that would have to be addressed at some other time.
Blood. Pain—he was usually fairly stoic about both, but this was not something he could quite shrug off—and the worst of it all was guilt. He really did not want to ruin the party Alicia had so carefully planned.
He used his key, unlocked the gate, and slipped into the garden. Only the most astute guest would wonder how he’d arrived unannounced, and after all, it was his house. He deftly unlocked the ballroom doors, reminded himself to make the entry more secure, and walked swiftly toward the back of the house.
Alicia would be busy playing hostess. Wondering where he might be. Making excuses…oh, devil take it, he needed to hurry.
This was Christmas and he’d chosen to keep the rendezvous anyway, so it was on his head that it had gone quite wrong.
He swore softly to himself as he moved quietly through the brightly lit house, luckily not encountering a servant. Once upstairs he divested himself of his blood-soaked jacket without ringing for his valet, though he was not entirely sure how he was going to dispose of it. He wrapped it in his equally blood-stained cloak, slipped off his shirt with a wince, and examined the damage.
Bad, but not unmanageable, he decided.
Was it fortuitous that he could say he’d seen worse? Probably not under the circumstances, but still, true.
With a tight wrap, he was fairly sure he could weather the evening though tying his cravat could be a tricky process.
There was no question of it.
He could fool everyone else, but not her.
Alicia watched her husband mingle with the well-bred guests—the prime minister had chosen to attend—and noticed he was visibly favoring his left arm.
Oh, outwardly, he was still self-possessed and captivatingly handsome, with his usual reserve in place, but there was a slight strain around his mouth and he held his tall body more stiffly than usual.
Not to mention he had been a bit late. On Christmas Eve?
On the other side of coin, she was more deeply concerned now than she was irritated by his late arrival.
Just how he had become injured she didn’t know, but he was.
First and foremost, aside from his slight awkwardness when using his left hand, he was pale under the usual bronze of his skin, the light tan acquired because he rode out almost every day with his string of race horses.
The stable was his only personal indulgence, the hobby inherited from his father.
However, he had another much more dangerous hobby than spirited horses…one that involved a continuous service to the Crown, and though he never spoke of it, she had grown more and more aware of it during the months since their marriage.
“This is a resounding success, my dear. Shall I escort you?” When dinner was announced, he managed to come around so he could offer her his right arm, his smile as enigmatic as usual, his vivid hazel eyes clear and sharp.
“Thank you, my lord.” They’d been married long enough that the uncertain bride she’d once been was now a woman who understood he was a complex and private man.
Alicia asked in a low tone, “Are you well?”
“Do I not seem to be?”
That was the man she knew. Ben rarely answered questions directly, usually the deflection so neatly done that the person asking did not notice. She watched him pull out her chair, her gaze analytical. “To everyone else,” she said quietly, “no. To me, yes.”
His gaze caught and held hers. “We can discuss this when we retire.”
That was a point she had to concede. After all, they had a houseful of guests and the most celebrated meal of the year was about to be served. She nodded, sank down and assumed her most poised smile as she nodded at one of the hovering footmen to start bringing in the first course.
Next to her Sir Neville, a rather thin dry man who seemed colorless but definitely had the ear of the King, remarked pleasantly, “What a lovely evening, Lady Heathton. Everything is quite splendid. My compliments.”
“Thank you. More claret?”
Graciously she played hostess through the soup, the fish course, and the main event, roast boar in a sauce of currants and wine, but was ever aware of her aristocratic husband who drank almost nothing and ate even less.
Yes, something was afoot.
It wasn’t until she observed him lifting his hand to pick up his fork and one single crimson drop dripped off his sleeve onto the pristine white tablecloth that she truly became alarmed. She set down her fork so abruptly and clumsily that it rattled against the fine china of her plate.
That small damning spot made her rise to her feet, slightly unsteady, which was not entirely feigned. The blasted man was bleeding.
Ben’s attention immediately sharpened, as he glanced over at her.
“Lady Heathton?” Chairs scraped the floor as every male at the table politely stood up. Sir Neville clasped her arm. “Are you quite all right?”
“I…I am not sure.” She theatrically swayed. She was not a consummate actress by any means, but it helped she actually did feel a bit faint, not having any idea how badly her husband could be hurt. “Please excuse me.
I suddenly feel a little unwell.”
Quite frankly, for someone she now knew was injured, he was at her side in record time, his good arm slipping around her waist. “I’ll take my wife upstairs. Harriet, would you perhaps take over for a bit?”
Hattie, Alicia’s older sister, was ever stalwart. “Of course not, my lord, if you will send down word promptly of how she is feeling.”
Alicia felt him falter as they left the room, and her arm tightened around his waist in support. Hopefully the illusion was he was helping her, but the moment they were clear, she asked succinctly, “Shall I call a footman or can you make it?”
He sent her a wicked glance, but he didn’t deny it. “I’ve survived worse. I might be bleeding a little more than I thought initially, but I will make it. Just help me keep my balance.”
That was easier said than done. He was a good deal taller and weighed considerably more and they had quite a way to go, not just in a physical sense but emotionally also.
He had no idea how much she loved him. It was two-fold also, not just a young woman’s first infatuation with a handsome lover, but a wife’s affection. That he kept secrets was not ideal, but she was willing to let him reveal them when he was ready—if he ever reached that point. At this moment, she just wanted to make sure he received medical attention promptly.
The assertion would have been more effective also if he hadn’t stumbled on the top step.
“I refuse to take your word for the gravity of your condition.”
It was telling that Ben didn’t argue. “Send word to Dr. Proctor. He is discreet.”
Agreeing to a physician? This was more serious than she thought. The tide of panic rose, but she fought it off.
As they gained the second floor where the family apartments were situated, she asked furiously, “Why didn’t you send for him immediately?”
Her enigmatic—and infuriating—husband said as if it wereat all logical, “I did not wish to spoil the dinner you spent so much time planning.”
She could point out that his reasoning had proved to be flawed, the blood dripping on the expensive carpet irrefutable evidence.
Not quite the dinner party she envisioned, but as his welfare was much more important, she didn’t care. “Do not be ridiculous. You are injured.”
One dark blond brow went upward in a sardonic arch. “Surely I should gain some esteem for attempting to not ruin the entire affair.”
His pallor and the trail of blood were not exactly conducive to holiday cheer, but she could hardly fault him for his effort to maintain as much of a semblance of normalcy as possible.
“I don’t think your noble intentions were quite realized.”
His smile was just a wry glimmer. “I have to agree. You are, by the way, quite an effective actress, my love.”
“You and I can discuss the matter once I know you are mending.” To her horror, when she attempted to help him out of his jacket, one entire sleeve of his shirt was soaked with blood. No wonder a trail of spots had followed them all the way up to their suite.
For a moment, her heart stopped, but Alicia gathered her composure. “I will be back immediately. Don’t move.”
He’d already removed his cravat and was wrapping it around his arm with remarkable calm. “I am quite certain I have no desire to do so.”
It was Christmas Eve she reminded herself as she rushed to the door.
And therefore it would be uncharitable to throttle the dratted man.
“I suppose I owe her an apology.”
His friend laughed softly. Lord Andrews shook his dark head. “I most certainly think so. Your beautiful wife certainly put on an effective performance in an effort to disguise your injury.”
Ben dashed brandy into a snifter before he turned and said dryly, “I’m glad you find it amusing.”
“Had you perished, no.” Broad shoulders lifted in a negligent shrug under the viscount’s tailored jacket. “As it turned out, her swoon was an indication she should have pursued a theatre career. I was thoroughly convinced she did not feel well.”
Ben took a stiff swallow from his glass and gazed moodily out the window. It was snowing, the white flakes floating down, giving the rooftops of London a surreal, storybook look. “I am entirely unsure how to repair the damage. She was infuriatingly polite this morning, but locked the door connecting to our bedrooms once she spoke to the physician, and in general has avoided me the rest of the day. I thought about seeking her out but maybe it is better this way. She’ll ask questions I do not wish to answer.”
The viscount raised his ebony brows and set aside his glass. “If it were my wife, I can tell you evasion is not a good tactic. I have tried it before with the hopeful expectation the conflict might just resolve itself, but it does not seem to work that way. Women are just too infernally complicated. Just ask her what you can do to make amends.”
“That is too simple.”
“Quite often simple is best. Ask her. And Merry Christmas, Heathton. I must be on my way.”
After Andrews left Ben stared at the fireplace, trying to decode the source of his unrest. Yes, his wife was unhappy with him, and he could not blame her, but neither had he asked to have someone put a ball through his arm. It still hurt like the devil, actually.
On the other hand, he realized he had frightened her. That was hardly a gift worthy of the season.
Would it be possible to recompense for the disaster? He wasn’t sure. Alicia was not at all superficial.
The trouble was he’d done a terrible job of helping her foray into being a fashionable ton hostess by turning up bleeding and late to dinner, but then again, in his defense…
He had no defense, he decided as he sat down, trying to ignore the ache in his shoulder.
“You should be abed, my lord.”
He glanced toward the doorway and immediately stood again in polite recognition, seeing the subject of his thoughts in the open doorway of his study. “I’m well enough.”
Alicia came into the room, her silk skirts softly swaying, her expression composed. “I think you should at least sit down.”
She looked…very beautiful. Aloof, yes. She hadn’t forgiven him, he had no illusions. But also there was poignancy in her oh-so lovely eyes.
His gift to her sat on his desk, bright wrapped in silver paper, the ribbon crimson silk.
Unfortunately, she did not so much as glance at it.
Perhaps a truce was in order.
“I will sit down if you will as well.” When she moved to take a wing chair by the fireplace, he said, “Not there. Come join me.”
For a moment she gazed at him in confusion, but when he sank down and held out a hand, she did come around his desk, albeit a bit warily, and allowed him to draw her down into his lap. Rarely did he display open affection—it wasn’t natural to him even when he felt it—but this was, after all, Christmas day, and though he hadn’t yet said the words, he was very much in love with his wife.
Maybe the night before had brought that to his attention.
His mouth grazed her throat and pressed at the hollow above her breastbone. “I’m sorry.”
But she quivered in response despite the cool answer. He felt it, her bottom soft against his thighs, her supple body pliant in his arms.
“I put you a very awkward position, my sweet.” He kissed her shoulder, deliciously bared by the design of her gown. “I was unforgivably late, I bled on the table linens, and I still have not offered an explanation.”
“All true. And all the gossips now will put about how I could not even successfully be a hostess at my own holiday gathering.”
“Is there any chance for a pardon?”
Alicia touched his cheek, just a brush of her fingers. “I think you know already that I would forgive you just about anything, but since I doubt you are going to tell me just what happened, can I make a request?”
“And that would be?”
“Could you please make a vow to me that you will be more careful?” Her fingers trembled against his skin. “I won’t ask you to avoid danger altogether because I have a feeling that you cannot make that promise, but, for me, take more care.”
Fair enough. The thought of any danger to her all but stopped his heart. He caught her hand and kissed the palm. “You have my solemn word.”
Her gaze was searching, but then she nodded. “I believe you. You keep your secrets, but you have never lied to me that I am aware of.”
He would be more affronted that she took a moment to accept his promise, but then again, he had ruined her carefully planned social gathering, and neither had he explained exactly what happened. A rueful smile touched his mouth. “I might lie to protect you—I’d do anything to protect you—but never to you.”
Her smile was endearingly tremulous. “Thank you.”
“Now then, about your gift.” He tore his gaze away from her soft, delicious mouth. How the devil could she be so tempting when he was still in considerable pain he wasn’t sure, but he found himself considering the logistics of how he could make love to her without compromising his wound. Ben gestured at the package on his desk. “Do you wish to open it?”
Alicia shook her head and kissed him, a sweet pressure that was moving and arousing.
“Maybe later, my lord,” she whispered against his mouth. “For you have just given me the best gift of all.”
What is society to do when the diamonds of the first water are caught in compromising situations, one after the other? Can the young ladies survive the season with their reputations intact…or will the scandalous whispers surrounding them bring about the ultimate ruination?
When Lady Elena Morrow, the reigning belle of the ton, suddenly disappears, her family is desperate to find her—and to keep the story from spreading through London society like wildfire, before her reputation is ruined. Unfortunately, it may be impossible to avoid a scandal. Viscount Andrews, better known as the Raven, London’s most notorious rake, has gone missing at exactly the same moment.
Benjamin Wallace, Lord Heathton, is more accustomed to untangling political difficulties, rather than those of the heart. But when he is pressured to help find Lady Elena, he can’t refuse—the distraught father is also his wife’s uncle. Now he must find the beautiful debutante before the connection to Andrews does away with her innocence—assuming the vulnerable young lady wants to be found…
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