A Royal Affair on Christmas Eve - Sophie BarnesBorn in Denmark, Sophie Barnes spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world. She's lived in five different countries, on three different continents, and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish, and Romanian. But, most impressive of all, she's been married to the same man three times—in three different countries and in three different dresses.
When she's not busy dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading.
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Returning to England from a family visit in Germany, Lady Francesca and her parents get caught in a snowstorm. Unable to continue their journey, they seek refuge at a castle belonging to a German prince. Even though the prince is not in residence, they do not wish to impose for longer than necessary, but this proves difficult since the snow shows no promise of melting any time soon. Instead, the family will try to make the most of the situation as they spend Christmas away from home.
A Royal Affair On Christmas Eve
“If we’d only left before the last snowfall, we might still have returned to England for Christmas,” Francesca said as she peered out at the winter landscape, her palm pressed against the frosty window pane.
“The snow would still have been too high for our carriage,” her mother, Lady Redfirn, said. “We wouldn’t have made it very far before getting stuck.”
“Which is why I decided it would be better to remain here where it’s dry,” Lord Redfirn said. He’d pulled his chair as close to the fireplace as possible and was happily drinking a glass of what he claimed to be excellent brandy.
Francesca sighed, then watched as her breath fogged the window. Her parents were right of course, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t rather be home amidst her familiar belongings and enjoying the comfort of her cozy bedchamber rather than feeling chilled in a drafty castle. “We ought to replace that bottle you’ve been drinking from before we depart, Papa.”
“Fran is correct, my dear,” Lady Redfirn said. “We’ve already imposed on Prince Ludwig enough, and without his knowledge, I might add. It wouldn’t do for him to return and find his reserves completely depleted – least of all in the middle of winter.”
“Oh, he won’t return any time soon. According to his man of affairs, the Prince will be staying away until spring, but I agree with the point you’re making.”
“Did you remember to speak with the cook about Christmas dinner?” Francesca asked her mother as she turned away from the window and strode across to the fireplace. Turning her back on it, she enjoyed the heat wafting over her even as she pulled her shawl tighter.
“Yes. Apparently there’s a goose she can prepare for us along with some mixed vegetables. There will even be a plum pudding for dessert,” Lady Redfirn said.
Satisfied that they would not go hungry and that they’d be able to celebrate Christmas to some degree of satisfaction, Francesca settled down on a chair adjacent to her father’s and picked up the embroidery she’d abandoned earlier.
That evening, they had soup for supper, accompanied by some thick slices of salted ham, which encouraged Francesca to drink more wine than usual. So when her parents decided to retire an hour after the meal had ended and they’d had some tea in front of the fireplace, she decided to go outside for a bit of fresh air.
“Don’t stay too long,” Lady Redfirn cautioned.
“And don’t go too far,” Lord Redfirn said.
“I plan to look in on the animals in the stable,” Francesca told them. “I’ll come upstairs to bed soon.”
Wrapped in her pelisse, she stepped out into the cold. It nipped at her cheeks and chilled the tip of her nose as she stepped down onto the driveway and started toward the stables. All was still, except for the snow squeaking beneath her feet and the sound of her deep breaths. Each inhalation sent frigid air rushing into her lungs, cooling her from within until she expelled it as a mist.
Reaching the door to the stable, she pulled it open and stepped inside, closing it quickly behind her so there wouldn’t be a draft. Although it wasn’t overly warm, it was still more pleasant than outside, the smell of clean hay and the glow from lanterns hanging under the ceiling, creating a cozy atmosphere that Francesca appreciated far more than the grandeur of the castle.
“Hello?” she called, checking if any of the grooms were around.
An unfamiliar man’s head popped out from one of the stalls – dark strands of hair falling into a pair of equally dark eyes while dimples formed on either side of his mouth as he offered Francesca a smile. “Can I help you?” he asked while studying her with interest.
Francesca felt her chest tighten a little while an odd sensation swept through her stomach, leaving her slightly dizzy. She shook herself and straightened her back. She would not allow herself to be affected by the handsome features of a mere groom. “I wanted to take a short walk before retiring for the evening and decided to look in on the horses.”
His gaze swept over her entire body from head to toe, sending a shiver down her spine. She decided to give him the set-down he clearly deserved, but before she managed to speak, he waved for her to come closer, saying, “I was just cleaning Wolfgang’s hooves, but he’s going to need brushing as well. You’re welcome to help if you like. There’s a brush just there on that hook.” And then he disappeared back inside the stall.
Francesca stood, speechless, for a moment. Had a handsome groom just asked her to help him with his duties? She blinked. In England he wouldn’t have dared, and yet she realized that she quite liked being treated ‘normally’ and without all the fuss that her title generally evoked.
Stepping forward, she grabbed the brush that the groom had indicated and approached the stall, her heart almost skidding to a halt as the groom came into view. Hunched over with his back toward her, he held one of Wolfgang’s legs while scraping away the dirt from the horse’s hoof with a metal object. His jacket, Francesca noted, had been flung over the side of the stall, allowing her a perfect view of the man’s broad shoulders, back and, most notably, a rather firm-looking backside. Additionally, there was a ruggedness about him, brought on by the work he was doing with his very own hands, that every gentleman she’d ever encountered lacked.
“If you come over here,” he said, releasing Wolfgang’s leg and straightening, “you’ll have better access.”
How she managed to put one foot in front of the other when she was barely able to breathe, she’d never know, but now that the groom was standing at his full height, she’d become alarmingly aware of his much larger size. And then of course there was the fact that he was looking at her again, affording her with another glimpse of those dark eyes of his that crinkled slightly at the corners as he smiled. God help her but she’d never seen a man this attractive before in her life!
Feeling terribly foolish for her ridiculous response to him, she gave a curt nod and moved to the spot he’d indicated. Setting the brush against Wolfgang’s back, she started to brush him, gasping when the groom placed his hand over hers shortly after. “Like this,” he said as he guided her hand. “Nice and easy.”
Drawing a deep breath, Francesca hoped to slow her racing heart, but he was too close, crowding her with his masculinity – the scent of wool, dirt and leather assaulting her senses. “I understand,” she said, her voice but a whisper that sounded much too sensual to her own ears.
He released her hand and moved to the corner of the stall where he picked up a bucket and held it up so Wolfgang could drink. “Do you enjoy riding?” he asked.
Unable to look at him, she simply nodded. There was something about the way in which he’d posed the question that made heat swirl up inside her. This wasn’t normal. Dropping her hand, she took a step back. “I ought to return to the castle,” she heard herself say.
“I was rather hoping you might join me for a glass of wine first. After all, it is Christmas Eve.”
Drinking wine with a groom? That had to be at the top of the list of scandalous things a young lady ought to avoid doing at all cost. Right below kissing a groom, which would undoubtedly be worse. Her cheeks heated at the thought of it. “Thank you, but I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”
“Why not?” His features were all seriousness while his dark eyes seemed to pierce her with intensity.
“I’ve had enough for tonight,” she confessed.
“A pity since the wine in my satchel is far superior to any of the ones in the castle.”
Amused by the pompous tone he’d just used and the implication that his wine would be better than that belonging to a prince, Francesca grinned. “I’m sure it is.”
“Perhaps just a sip?” he suggested.
It was tempting, but so was he and with added wine, who knew what might happen. She couldn’t allow herself to be ruined. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t.”
“Hmm…” He set down the bucket and snatched his jacket. “Will you at least keep me company?”
“I’m not sure—”
“You have the prettiest blue eyes and the loveliest smile, you know. And when you just laughed…well, I must admit that the sound of it went straight to my heart.” He placed his hand over his chest, his eyes sparkling with irresistible sincerity. “Please, allow me to enjoy my wine in your delightful company.”
It was a request she found she could not deny. “All right. But I can’t stay long.”
He smiled at her broadly. “Just as long as it takes for you to tell me all about yourself.” He gestured toward the door of the stall and she went through it feeling quite absurd about this newly formed companionship. Stranger still, was that when she took her seat on a bale of hay with him next to her, she found herself relaxing. Certainly, her stomach still flipped whenever their eyes happened to meet, but aside from that, she felt increasingly comfortable in his presence – as if they’d been friends for years.
“Do you like to travel?” he asked her a good hour later when he’d finished the last of his wine, “or do you prefer to stay at home?”
“I’ve always loved seeing new places, though I’d rather be home for Christmas.”
“Then you must be quite disappointed to be stuck here in the snow.”
His tone was light, yet Francesca couldn’t help but sense that he was hoping she’d disagree with his assessment. “It’s not what I wished for,” she told him honestly, “but since I have no choice in the matter, I’m quite determined to make the most of it. As are my parents. Besides, I wouldn’t have met you if we hadn’t been forced to stop along the way, and I must say that I’m very glad that I have.”
Smiling with clear satisfaction, he reached for her hand. “Me too.”
Tilting her head, she studied his rumpled jacket, his messy hair and his muddy boots. “I hope you won’t be offended by this, but you’ve proven yourself very knowledgeable and well-spoken for a groom.”
His brow creased with a slight frown. “A groom?” he sounded surprised.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “Are you not a groom?”
“No,” he told her pensively – as if trying to figure out why she might think such a thing.
“A stable-hand then?”
“Does it really matter, as long as we enjoy each other’s company? If you thought me a groom then you’re clearly not the sort of lady who would consider herself too good to share a modest man’s company, for which I’m most grateful. Most of the ladies I’ve encountered would have snubbed their noses. They certainly wouldn’t have helped take care of a horse or sit on a bale of hay inside a stable.”
Absurdly pleased with his praise, Francesca gave a little shrug. “I’ve always judged people individually and with a deliberate attempt not to generalize.”
“Another reason why I like you. As selfish as it may be, I hope the snow doesn’t melt too fast. I’d like for us to be allowed more time together.”
He squeezed her hand a little, which in turn made her shudder in a delicious sort of way that she really shouldn’t allow. And yet, she couldn’t deny that she liked the idea of meeting him again and talking some more. “As much as I’ve enjoyed this evening, I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“Because no matter how you feel or what you want, you were born to fulfill a duty? Because your future cannot possibly include a mere groom?” He shook his head even as her throat tightened with the unfairness of it all. “I know all too well about the restrictions Society can place upon ones shoulders and how difficult it can be to accept them. But since it is Christmas, perhaps you should allow yourself to dream a little.”
“I should go,” she said, rising to her feet. He rose as well. “Thank you for a lovely evening. I—”
“Allow me to escort you back to the castle. It’s cold and dark outside. I’d hate for you to slip on the ice.”
“The ice was cleared from the path earlier.”
“Nevertheless. I insist.”
So she took the arm he offered her, disturbed by how right it felt when she knew she could not allow herself to fall for this man. Her heart ached with it as she feared never meeting anyone else again to spark such an interest in her. It was as if her very soul leapt at the possibility of spending every waking hour in his company. Which of course was ridiculous, since they’d only just met.
Politely, he opened the stable door for her and followed her out into the cold. Neither spoke a word as they started up the path. It was as if just being together was enough, until he suddenly stopped. “I don’t suppose you might give me something with which to remember this magical night?”
Turning toward him, she looked up at him, but his face was shrouded in darkness now, allowing only a silhouette. “I’m afraid I have nothing with me – not even a trinket.”
“And I’m glad for that, for there’s something I’d much rather have. If you will allow it.” Her heart quickened. “If you look up, you’ll find that we’re standing below some mistletoe.”
She glanced toward the door of the castle, then back at him. One kiss that would make this Christmas the most memorable one of her life. Could she allow it? Uncertainty warred with temptation. “I can’t promise you anything after. I mean, you and I…it would be impossible.”
“Perhaps not quite as impossible as you imagine.” But before she could contest his statement, he lowered his mouth over hers and pulled her close – her chest pressed firmly against his.
It was an experience unlike any other. Never before had she felt so revered or cherished. The way he held her and kissed her – it was as if he’d ridden for days just to be with her in this moment.
Lazily, her mind acknowledged the sound of a door opening and closing even as her knees threatened to give way beneath her. Then footsteps sounded and it was as if she was hurled back to reality with startling force. Concerned with who had witnessed her indiscretion and what her parents might say if they discovered that their daughter had been kissing one of Prince Ludwig’s employees, Francesca pulled hastily away, adding distance between herself and…Good lord, she’d spent well over an hour with him, had told him so much about herself, had even allowed him to kiss her, and yet she’d no idea of his name! Horrified by her own lack of manners, she said, “I’m so sorry, but I don’t even know your—”
The man, whom the footsteps belonged to arrived, cutting her off as he addressed her companion. “Forgive me, Your Highness, but I was not aware of your arrival. You were not expected so I…that is…oh dear.”
“Your Highness?” Francesca could only stare from one man to the other. Surely not. He couldn’t be. Could he?
“It’s quite all right, Herr Albrecht. You know that I prefer to see to Wolfgang personally.” Taking Francesca by the arm, the prince resumed walking toward the entrance to the castle. “I understand that we have some house-guests - The Earl and Countess of Redfirn?”
“Yes,” Herr Albrecht said. “They arrived a few days ago when the snow grew too heavy for their carriage. In fact, I’m surprised you made it here yourself.”
“Wolfgang is very dependable. He always manages to take me where I want to go. Now, if you’ll please ensure that my bedchamber is made ready, I’d like a private word with Lady Francesca.”
“Yes. Of course,” Her Albrecht said before hurrying off and disappearing through the large front door of the castle.
“I can’t believe I thought you were a groom,” Francesca said, mortified by the degree with which she’d insulted the prince. “Why didn’t you correct my error?”
“Because I liked discovering that you’re unbiased and that you are willing to allow a man you thought to be a groom, and therefore far below your station, the chance to talk to you.” Guiding her up the front steps of the castle, he opened the door and ushered her inside. “I may be a prince, Lady Francesca, but I’m also a simple man who enjoys working side by side with his men. I spend much of my time either outdoors or in the stables. It pleased me to see that you are capable of enjoying such surroundings.”
“I truly did.” She bit her lip as she looked at him, his face more distinct now due to the lanterns lighting the foyer. “In fact, I have to say that the more I spoke to you, the sadder I got knowing that I could never allow our acquaintance to develop into anything more.”
“Yet you allowed me to kiss you.” His cheek dimpled as the corner of his mouth edged upward.
“I decided to allow myself one spectacular moment by which to remember you.”
“And I am grateful for it.” His arms came around her, pulling her close. His lips brushed the top of her head with tenderness. “But now that you know who I really am, perhaps you’ll allow us to explore this bond that seems to be forming between us.”
“You mean to court me?” She could scarcely believe it.
“I mean to encourage you to stay here with me after the snow melts. But first, I intend to enjoy spending Christmas with you and your parents.” Dipping his head, he brought his lips to hers, kissing her with all the wonder and magic that the Season had to offer, and with the promise of many more kisses to come.
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Lady Sarah would make the perfect bride for a peer—if not for a tarnished past that she's hiding from the ton. A stay at Thorncliff Manor was meant to help her plan for her future, not fall in love. Yet Christopher's kisses are irresistible, his gallantry enticing. When her secret stands to be revealed, will the truth ruin their dreams of happiness?
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