Born 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.
A Duke Surrender's His Heart on Christmas Eve with Sophie Barnes
Invited to spend Christmas with his best friend, the Earl of Bellmore, whom he hasn’t seen in almost a year, Blake Knightly, Duke of Ravensby, arrives at Oxborough Hall with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he soon discovers that what he thought would be a relaxing time away in the country, is in fact a matchmaking party featuring him and the one woman whom he’d like to avoid forever.
Smoky clouds darkened the afternoon sky by the time Blake Knightly, Duke of Ravensby, alit from his carriage at Oxborough Abbey. Chilly specks of snow had begun to fall a half hour earlier, now dusting the front steps of the estate where he would be spending the holidays. He stepped forward, just as the massive oak door swung open. “Ravensby!” Looking up, Blake found his longtime friend, the Earl of Bellmore, grinning down at him with sparkling eyes. “It is so good to see you again. Thank you for coming.”
Returning the salutation with a smile, Blake started up the steps. “I could not turn down your gracious invitation.” Reaching the top, he shook the hand his friend offered. “It has been far too long since I last saw you.”
“Indeed it has,” Bellmore agreed. “Come. Let us go inside. I believe a brandy by the fire is in order.” Asking a couple of footmen to collect Blake’s things and take them up to his room, Bellmore showed the way to the library.
“May I ask where the rest of your family is hiding?” Blake asked, his eyes searching the entryway where garlands hung with bright red bows filled the air with the scent of pine.
“They are all upstairs in the green parlor enjoying their afternoon tea. Mama and Papa were quite eager to come and greet you, but I asked them to wait a while.” Entering the library, Bellmore went to the side table and began pouring drinks. “After all, they have not seen you for some years, so I thought I would spare you from being attacked by their many questions the moment you stepped through the door. No need to worry though - you will see them shortly.”
Thanking his friend for his thoughtfulness, Blake accepted the tumbler that he offered him and took a sip. “You mentioned in your letter that your aunt and uncle are here as well?”
“Indeed they are.”
“I cannot recall seeing them since I was a boy.”
Nodding, Bellmore gestured for Blake to take a seat. “Do you know who else is here?” With a twinkle in his eyes, Bellmore claimed the armchair opposite Blake’s. “My sister, Melanie.”
Blake suppressed a groan. Had he known she would be here as well, he might have had second thoughts about coming. “I thought she was away at finishing school. As I recall, you once mentioned that she only comes home for the summer holidays.”
Bellmore’s lips twitched. “You really have no concept of time, do you, Ravensby? Melanie finished her classes a year and a half ago. She is now eighteen and will embark on her first Season this coming year.”
“Eighteen?” Blake frowned. When he’d last seen her she’d been a hoydenish child with a penchant for mischief. She’d found great joy in pestering him with her pranks.
“I believe you will find her vastly improved,” Bellmore said dryly. “She no longer keeps mice in her pockets.”
Blake coughed. “What a relief!”
“And…” Bellmore added, “She also manages to look more ladylike.”
“Are we still speaking of your sister or of someone else entirely?” Blake asked. To this day he could not recall ever coming across another person who looked as disheveled as Lady Melanie. Something had always ruined her ensemble: a bramble bush, a bit of mud from a puddle or a few stray twigs haphazardly caught in her hair.
“She has grown up, Ravensby.”
Blake wasn’t sure he liked the way in which his friend said that. It almost sounded as though he was plotting something - something that might involve a priest. “If you are suggesting I take an interest in her—”
“I would never. Not even if Mama and Papa are of the opinion that marrying her off to you would be a coup.”
Blake grit his teeth. “Really?”
Bellmore nodded. “You are a duke, after all, so they are correct. Unlike them, however, I remember how much the two of you dislike each other. That said, I cannot wait to see what you think of Melanie’s transformation!” The grin that lit Bellmore’s face filled Blake with apprehension. His friend was clearly of the opinion that he would be impressed by the girl.
But what if?
Blake’s cravat felt suddenly tighter. He took another sip of his drink, recalling the precision with which Lady Melanie had once hurled a cherry pie after him, hitting him squarely in the back of the head. Or the time when she’d filled his hat with spiders so he’d gotten the pesky creatures all over his hair. She was an infuriating troublemaker whose company he’d rather not keep. Marry her? Bellmore’s parents had to be cracked in the head if they thought he’d ever consider such a thing. To his friend, he simply said, “I am sure I shall find her as charming as always.”
Dressed in a pale-blue silk gown, Melanie reached for her teacup and took a sip, oblivious to the conversation that was taking place around her. Ravensby was here. She’d seen him arrive a short while ago when she’d gone to look out the window. The carriage had pulled up to the front step and he’d gotten out onto the snow-covered driveway. Her heart skipped slightly as she recalled how imposing he’d seemed. As a child, he’d always unnerved her, which probably explained why he’d fascinated her so. Gradually, as she’d grown older, her fascination with him had developed into a strange emotion that she’d dealt with in the only way she’d known how – by pestering him. It wasn’t until recently, when her brother had mentioned that Ravensby would be joining them for Christmas, that she’d begun to understand her feelings for him. Love. That’s what it was. And it just about terrified her to pieces.
She glanced at her mother who was sitting beside her. “Yes?”
Lady Oxborough gave her a quizzical look before saying, “Your aunt was just asking if you would be kind enough to show her your watercolors.”
“Of course,” Melanie said, addressing her aunt with a smile. “I would be delighted to. Perhaps this evening, after dinner?”
“I look forward to it,” Melanie’s aunt, Viscountess Featherington, said.
The door to the salon opened just then and Bellmore entered. “Ravensby has finally arrived,” he declared, stepping aside so his friend could enter.
Melanie tried not to stare. Lord help her if he wasn’t more handsome than when she’d last seen him, his dark hair falling haphazardly across his brow and with a glint of confident control lurching beneath his coffee-colored eyes.
“It is good to see you again,” Melanie’s father announced as he and her uncle went to shake Ravensby’s hand.
Rising, her mother and aunt went to greet him as well, concealing Ravensby from Melanie’s view as they did so. “How many years has it been, Ravensby?” Melanie’s mother asked.
“When I last saw you, you were still climbing trees with Bellmore,” Lady Featherington said. “You cannot have been more than fifteen years old.” There was a brief pause, and then, “It does appear as though you have grown a few inches since then.” Everyone laughed.
“They are not the only ones who have grown up,” Melanie’s mother said, stepping aside.
The room went completely still as everyone turned to look at Melanie, their expressions filled with pride and expectation. Except for Ravensby, who looked as though he might be about to suffer a fit of the vapors. Encouraged by his obvious state of shock, Melanie felt her nervousness subside. Rising to her feet, she smiled and said, “Welcome back to Oxborough, my lord. I trust you journey went well?”
He nodded. Then, as if recalling himself, he hastily said, “Yes. Yes it did. Quite well. Thank you.”
Melanie’s smile widened. She could scarcely believe what she was witnessing. Certainly, her experience with men was limited, but judging from the way in which Ravensby was staring at her, she could only assume that he was seeing her in an entirely new light.
Why on earth would Lady Oxborough ask him to help Lady Melanie search for mistletoe on Christmas Eve? Devil take it, he knew why! Frustrated by the fact that he’d allowed his hostess to meddle, Blake paced the entryway of Oxborough Abbey with increasing impatience. He’d no idea of what he was doing or what he was thinking or of anything else really. In the time it took to glance across a room, his world had been turned upside. And by whom? By the very last person he’d ever thought would affect him in this particular way. Lord help him, Lady Melanie was just as infuriating as she’d always been, though in an entirely different way now. “Annoying girl,” he muttered as he turned to cross the marble floor once more.
“I beg your pardon?”
Halted by the sound of her voice, Blake glanced in the direction from which it had come, his heart tripping the moment he found her. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in a white woolen cloak, her eyes sparkling with curiosity.
Blake tightened his jaw. “Hmm?” he offered, feigning ignorance.
Her brows drew together. “You were talking to yourself.”
“It sounded as though you were voicing a complaint.”
He offered a tight smile. “Not at all.” Indicating the door, he asked, “Shall we?”
Her lips tilted with amusement, as though she knew precisely what he’d said, which only made him more irritable. Why hadn’t Bellmore warned him in his letter that his sister had, against all odds, grown into a woman who was destined to drive him mad?
Following her outside, he was allowed a moment to admire her shapely figure, acutely aware of the tingling in the tips of his fingers, urging him to reach out and…Blake frowned as he considered Bellmore’s behavior since his arrival. Ahead of him, Lady Melanie turned, her golden locks covered in a sparkling veil of snowflakes. He shook his head. Bellmore had recently been excusing himself from Blake’s company, claiming he had letters to write, a headache or some important matter to see to. Curiously, these incidents had always ensured that Blake and Lady Melanie would be left alone together.
Blake blinked, confounded by the fact that his friend, contrary to everything he’d said, was in on the matchmaking scheme. He wasn’t sure if he should pummel him or thank him.
Descending the front steps to where Lady Melanie stood waiting, Blake offered her his arm. “Forgive me,” he said as he drew her closer to his side. A gasp escaped her, warming his insides as they started along a path that would take them to the far side of the garden. “I was just thinking about your brother.”
“Really?” She sounded genuinely surprised and perhaps even a little disappointed.
Glancing down at her, he noted her frown. “He warned me about you when I came here for the first time – told me his sister was a hoydenish troublemaker.” He chuckled at the memory of it. “I believe I should have taken him more seriously than I did. Perhaps then I would have anticipated the bucket of water above the doorway or the dirt in my boots.”
“You never stood a chance,” she said as she glanced toward the sky.
“No,” he agreed, “I did not.”
They walked on in silence for a while, the frosty air reddening their cheeks, until she suddenly said, “I am sorry about your jacket. It was never my intention to ruin it.”
Recalling the incident, which had involved some bread and a flock of hungry birds, Blake said, “I cannot recall another time when I was quite so angry.” He’d left the house that very same day and sworn never to return. “You always did your best to get rid of me, and eventually you succeeded. Consequently, I am a little surprised by your willingness to share my company now…unless of course you are leading me into a trap.”
She winced. The sound was unmistakable. “I never wanted to get rid of you, Ravensby, but I was a lot younger then, and I did not understand what I was…” She blew out a breath. “All I wanted was a bit of attention.”
“As far as I recall, you received plenty.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “But not from you.”
Her words shook him. Within the confines of his chest, he could feel his heart beating loudly, spurred on by hope. Was it possible? It seemed inconceivable. “What exactly are you saying?”
“Is it not clear?”
He drew her to a standstill and turned her toward him. “No. Not exactly. But I would like to understand, if you would care to offer an explanation.”
Melanie stared up at Ravensby. Her heart was skittering along at a frantic pace and her stomach was turning itself inside out. This was it. The moment of truth. “I like you.” His expression grew rigid. “Indeed, I have always liked you.”
A frown puckered his brow. “You had a funny way of showing it.”
Dropping her gaze, she studied the thin layer of snow that covered the ground. “I know, but at least it forced you to pay attention to me. Unfortunately, it also ensured that you would always consider me a pest, while I…” Looking up, she saw that he was watching her with great anticipation. Emboldened, she said, “As I grew older, my feelings for you deepened, until it finally occurred to me that I have never loved another man as much as I love you.” The words were spoken in a rush – before she had a chance to change her mind about saying them. But when all he did was stare at her as if she’d just dropped out of the sky, she began to regret her bold declaration.
“You love me.” He sounded incredulous.
“No. I…Forget I said anything.” She started to turn away.
“Melanie.” His hand touched hers and before she knew it, he was pulling her into his arms. “You have driven me to despair for as long as I have known you, though never as much as these past few days.”
“I am sorry.” She could think of nothing else to say.
Laughing, he brought his hand to her cheek. “Your stubborn determination has slain me, Melanie. I am yours. My heart is yours.”
“Truly?” She could scarcely believe it.
“I love you with all that I am.” Kissing her brow, he said, “Thank you for not giving up.” He kissed her cheek next. “For making me realize how incredible you are.” His lips met hers, chasing away the cold and filling her with warmth. “Marry me, Melanie.” His breath brushed the edge of her mouth as he spoke between kisses.
“Yes.” Winding her arms around his neck, she held tight as she gazed up at the man she loved. “Affianced on Christmas Eve. I cannot believe it.”
“I know what you mean,” he murmured. “But there is no doubt in my mind that I am the luckiest man in the world right now.”
“Should we go back inside and tell my parents?”
“Let them wait.” Taking her by the hand, he gave her a mischievous smile. “After all, we have not yet collected the mistletoe that they sent us to find.”
Laughing, Melanie allowed him to lead her along the path, their boots kicking up a spray of snow as they hurried toward the place in the garden where more kisses awaited.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this story. I hope that you enjoyed it and would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy holiday season with all the best for a wonderful 2016!
An unexpected passion ignites as secrets are exposed in Sophie Barnes's captivating Regency-set romance...Despite the diversions offered at Thorncliff Manor, former spy James, the Earl of Woodford, has one purpose in staying there. He must find an encoded book that exposes a conspiracy within the British aristocracy. And he must do so without revealing his purpose to the clever, tempting Chloe Heartly. The lady has a knack for appearing wherever it is least convenient. In the library. In the salon. And, especially, in his arms...Somewhere within Thorncliff's labyrinth of rooms lies the journal Chloe desperately seeks. When she realizes the brooding, handsome earl is hunting the same quarry, Chloe enters into an uneasy partnership. But in the face of public danger and enemies hiding in plain sight, both must decide how much they're willing to risk to solve the mysteries of the heart.
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