Crashing a Ball on Christmas Eve - Manda Collins
Manda Collins spent her teen years wishing she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, preferably in the English countryside. Time travel being what it is, she resigned herself to life with electricity and indoor plumbing, and read lots of books. An affinity for books led to a graduate degree in English, followed by another in Librarianship. By day, she works as an academic librarian at a small liberal arts college, where she teaches college students how to navigate the tangled world of academic research. A native of coastal Alabama, Manda lives in the house her mother grew up in with three cats, sometimes a dog, sometimes her sister, and more books than strictly necessary.
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Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of this fab Christmas celebration! For my contribution, I offer a very short story starring one of Lord Deveril's sisters (last seen in HOW TO ROMANCE A RAKE) and her long lost love who arrives unexpectedly (and uninvited) at the Deverils' Christmas Eve ball. Enjoy!
Happy Christmas At Last
by Manda Collins
The rain had just turned into sleet when Jason stopped his lathered mount in the drive of Lord Deveril’s country house. The windows were blazing with candle light and even from outside he could hear the merry notes of a dance tune being expertly played by what was no doubt a first rate set of musicians. Nothing but the best for Viscount Deveril.
“I’m afraid the ball has already begun, sir,” said the footman who answered his knock. It was a testament to his excellent training that he didn’t flinch at Jason’s no doubt bedraggled appearance. His riding clothes were dirty from the long ride, and his curly brown hair was no doubt wild from the wind. “But I’ve no doubt milord and milady will welcome ye all the same. It is Christmas, after all.”
A warm welcome was the last thing that Jason Fenwick expected from Deveril, he thought as he followed the servant into the entry hall. The way that they’d parted three years ago had assured him of that. But time had passed. And circumstances changed. And after a self-imposed exile, he was ready to come home.
“Is Miss Eleanor here?” he inquired of the footman. Better to put his case to her now, before Deveril had the chance to poison her against him.
Three years ago he’d been little more than a boy. Now he was a man, and since his father’s death, possessed of his own fortune. He’d not be frightened away again.
Before the footman could answer, a gasp from one of the doors off the hall drew his attention.
She had begun the evening with such high hopes. When her sister-in-law, Juliet, had hit upon the idea of an old-fashioned country ball to celebrate the holiday, Eleanor had thrown herself into the preparations for the entertainment with as much gusto as she could manage. Since her botched elopement three years earlier, however, the Christmas holidays invariably turned her thoughts melancholy.
Mostly she wondered what if…? What if Alec hadn’t found them on the Great North Road? What if Jason hadn’t allowed himself to be persuaded to give her up? What if she’d been allowed to marry him despite his lack of fortune and distinguished name?
She could hardly hold her brother in contempt for his actions. He’d done what he thought best for her. Alec had learned the extent of Jason’s debts—most of them incurred on behalf of his father—and had decided he wanted more information from her beloved’s man of business. To Eleanor, it sounded as if her brother thought her beloved was a fortune hunter. And she’d convinced Jason that an elopement was their only option.
They’d barely been on the road for a day when Alec caught up with them. There had been tears and recriminations. And Jason had been forbidden to see her ever again.
But here he was now, his greatcoat dripping sleet onto the black and white tiled floor of the Deveril country house, looking as handsome as ever.
“Jason,” she repeated. “Is it really you?”
Those eyes she remembered so well crinkled at the corners and he gave a hollow laugh. “Unless I’ve acquired a twin somewhere along the way.”
“Miss Eleanor,” James, the footman said carefully, “this fellow was late. I was about to show him into the ballroom when he asked after you.”
“It’s all right, James,” she said, not taking her eyes off Jason, too afraid he’d disappear into the mist if she looked away. “I’ll see him in the little parlor. Please have cook send us up a pot of tea and some of the ham from supper.”
Wordlessly, she gestured for Jason to follow her into the warm chamber. She led him to the chairs arranged before the fire and took a seat. Rather than sitting opposite her, as she’d intended for him, Jason instead stayed standing before the fire, turning his back to it, and leaning his shoulders against the mantle. It was a stance she remembered from their time together years ago. Only now, the shoulders were broader, more imposing. Gone was the boy she’d fallen in love with and in his place was this man.
“I take it your brother is entertaining tonight,” Jason said, the intensity of his gaze sending her heartbeat into a flurry of excitement.
Clasping her hands together, Eleanor nodded. “He is recently married and his wife, Juliet, thought a local ball might be fun for the neighborhood.”
The news of Deveril’s marriage seemed to surprise him. “Interesting. I hadn’t thought Deveril was the marrying kind.”
“Nor did I,” Eleanor admitted. “But Juliet is a lovely girl. And they are quite happy together. Of course there was her parents didn’t bother to object to their elopement…”
Before she could go on, Jason stalked over and dropped to his haunches before her.
“Ellie,” he said quietly, taking her gloved hands in his. “I can’t stand here uttering polite conversation with you. Not when I’ve spent the past three years dreaming of the moment when I could see you again. Say that you’ve been thinking of me as well.”
Eleanor closed her eyes against the sheer intensity of his nearness. Her heart hammered within her chest and she tried and failed to block her response to the scent of him. “How can you ask me that?” she demanded.
“When you didn’t once try to contact me? It’s been three years, Jason. I was desperate to hear from you. I thought I would go mad from it.”
Jason swallowed. How to explain to her where he’d spent the last few years? He’d run through every possible explanation on the ride from London, but still he was unable to come up with anything but the truth.
“I regret not writing,” he said, refusing to let her drop her gaze. “I do. But at the time I thought it was for the best. I had no way of knowing whether your brother would even give you my letters—it is, after all, forbidden for an unmarried couple to exchange letters. And on top of that, I was working like the very devil to make sure the factory was a success.”
“Factory?” Eleanor asked, her lovely brow furrowed. “What factory?”
And it was this that Jason had dreaded telling her. That her well-born suitor had gone from courting her to engaging in what true ton snobs called trade.
“You know my father had threatened to cut me off,” he said carefully. “Well, after our elopement, he did it. He gave me five thousand pounds and told me to go make something of myself. At first I was terrified. I’d never worked a day in my life. But then I met a man, Mr. Barnabus Jones, who has made a mountain of money from cotton mills in the north. And he took me under his wing. Before long, I was able to purchase a factory of my own, and not long after that I began to make money.”
The derision he’d feared seeing in her gaze never materialized. Instead she looked bemused. “So all this time, you’ve been working? Creating a business of your own?” She laughed. “I knew you would be a success at whatever you chose to set your mind to, but it never once occurred to me that it would be cotton.”
He smiled, relief coursing through him at her reaction. He’d been holding his breath until she spoke. “Nor I,” he said candidly. “I was so angry at my father for refusing to finance a career for me in the army. It amazes me that in refusing to do so he was actually doing me a favor.”
“I heard about his death,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re the only one,” he said with a shrug. “He might have done me a favor, but he was still a disagreeable old sot. But I thank you.”
“I’m glad you’ve come,” she said quietly. “I thought at first that you were a figment of my imagination. That my wishes had conjured you.”
Hope sent his heart soaring. “Then you might be willing to consider my proposal, if I were to make one?”
She laughed softly. “I just admitted to wishing you here after an absence of three years. What do you think my response to a proposal would be?”
It was his turn to laugh. “Fair enough,” he said. “Though I give you warning that if your brother objects he will simply have to live with it.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem this time around,” said a voice from the doorway.
As if they’d been caught in the feverish embrace rather than simply holding hands, Jason and Eleanor leapt back from one another.
“Eleanor,” said the pretty red head standing next to Lord Deveril, “I hope you will introduce me to your friend.”
Jason stood and bowed. “Lady Deveril, I presume,” he said politely.
“Juliet,” Eleanor said standing up beside Jason and slipping her hand into his, “this is Mr. Jason Fenwick, my soon to be fiancé.”
Squeezing her hand, Jason cleared his throat. “Actually, my dear, since my father’s death, I’m now Lord Fenwick.”
Lord Deveril, who had been watching the proceedings with something like amusement, bowed. “Fenwick, I am delighted to see you here. I’ve been searching for you this age, but you’ve been a dashed hard man to find.”
“Looking for him?” Eleanor demanded. “Why?”
Now it was Deveril’s turn to act sheepish. “Ellie, it’s long been my opinion that breaking up your elopement was one of the stupider things I’ve ever done.”
Juliet’s eyes widened. “You broke up your sister’s elopement? And then eloped yourself with me?” She shook her head. “You have some definite groveling to do, my lord.”
“I said it was stupid,” Deveril said quickly. Turning to Eleanor and Jason he continued, “I know it does little good now, but I will do whatever it takes to ensure that your engagement this time goes off without a hitch.”
“There’s just one problem,” Eleanor said ruefully.
Three pairs of eyes fastened on her.
“What?” Jason demanded. He had hoped that this go round their match would be problem free.
Eleanor turned, her eyes alight with mischief. “You haven’t asked me yet.”
Deveril chortled and his bride gave a quick laugh. “I know when we aren’t wanted,” she said with mock complaint. “Do both of you come join the dancing when you’ve got things settled between you.”
Jason exchanged a look with Deveril who shrugged. “If you feel like it. We won’t be annoyed if you take some time to yourselves. It has been three years after all.”
With that the Lord and Lady Deveril left the room, closing the chamber door behind them.
“I believe your brother just gave me permission to ravish you senseless,” Jason said in astonishment. “Never thought I’d see the day when he did that.”
“Don’t put the cart before the horse.” Eleanor raised her brows. “I might say no.”
But she had no intention of denying him. She’d waited ten long years for him to return to her, and now that he had come back she would do everything in her power to see to it that they were never parted again.
“Then I’ll just have to rectify that, won’t I?” Jason asked with a grin. Then, to Eleanor’s astonishment—though really she should have expected such a grand gesture from Jason—he dropped down on one knee before her, and took her left hand in his.
“Miss Eleanor Devenish,” he said, his dear face uncharacteristically solemn, “will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
The giddiness that had threatened to overtake her since she’d seen him in the entry hall finally unfurled within her. “Yes, Jason. Yes, of course I will.”
He kissed her hand and instead of standing, pulled her down onto her own knees before him. “I haven’t any mistletoe,” he whispered in her ear, “but I have it on excellent authority that Christmas Eve kisses are deemed appropriate between betrothed couples. In fact, I think they’re expected.”
Eleanor’s response was heartfelt, but silent.
And a Happy Christmas was enjoyed by all.
You can lead a wallflower to the ball, but you can’t make her bloom—unless one daring young bachelor turns up the heat…
DANCING WITH DANGER
What’s a nice girl like Miss Juliet Shelby doing in a place like Lord Deveril’s ballroom? With her shy demeanor, she’s a total stranger to the dance floor and a source of mockery for the ton. So imagine her surprise when Deveril gallantly comes to her defense—and offers to teach her to dance! Juliet can hardly believe the most handsome bachelor in London would notice her, until he takes her in his arms and sets her heart ablaze…
PLAYING WITH FIRE
Lord Alec Deveril has never felt such a spark of attraction for an unmarried lady before. Unlike the “fashionable” women he’s accustomed to, Juliet possesses a generous spirit, a fiery intelligence—and an explosive secret. Deep in the London underworld, a dear friend has vanished, and Juliet fears the worst. Deveril insists on helping, escorting her through the darkest alleys in town. But he too is hiding a shocking secret—and the only way he can defeat the devil in his past is to seduce the angel in his arms …
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