Jessica Peterson began reading romance to escape the decidedly unromantic awkwardness of her teenage years. Having found solace in the likes of Rhett Butler and Mr. Darcy, it wasn’t long before she began creating tall, dark, and handsome heroes of her own.
A graduate of Duke University, Jessica worked at an investment bank before leaving to pursue her writerly dreams. She lives with her husband, the tall, dark, and handsome Mr. Peterson, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A Ruined Dinner Party on Christmas Eve with Jessica Peterson
Two households, both alike in dignity…
Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET
Winter, 1814. Since the time of the Cousins’ War some three hundred years before, two of England’s greatest families – the Woodvilles and the Danes – have feuded over control of the Northern shires.
But with the marriage of their heirs, Catherine Woodville and Gunnar Danes, earlier this year, their enmity has been all but erased.
Until, that is, the families come together for a Christmas Eve feast…
Castle West, Northumberland
Christmas Eve 1814
It had been a dull affair thus far, the great Christmas Eve feast. But in the northern wilds, dull was a good thing. It meant everyone would return to their beds in one piece – no stab wounds, no one losing their heads, figuratively or literally.
Dull meant the uneasy truce between the houses of Woodville and Danes – between the Dukes of Clare and Westick – still stood. Which Laila Danes, daughter of that great scion the Duke of Westick, supposed was the most important thing.
Still. It made for a rather long evening.
She dabbed at her lips with a starched linen napkin, hoping to conceal a yawn.
She glanced across the table.
He was looking at her again.
He meaning Harry Woodville, that shameless rapscallion. If this were a Shakespeare play, he’d be listed on the players page as HARRY WOODVILLE: raucous cousin to the Duke of Clare. He was a soldier in the army that once upon a time fought to bring ruin to her family.
He was her enemy.
And he’d been looking at her all night. At first Laila thought he might be foxed, like everyone else in Castle West’s Great Hall. But then she noticed he barely touched his wine, and waved off the footmen when they tried to offer him other, more potent, refreshment.
Laila trained her eyes elsewhere during the first courses, but now – annoyed, and more curious than she cared to admit as to why he stared at her as if he wanted to eat her – she met his gaze head on.
Despite their color, Harry’s blue eyes were warm, like the white-hot edge of a lick of flame. They made her feel warm, too; no doubt she was flushed, but what did she care? It wasn’t as if she was interested in him.
Not Harry, the raucous cousin.
Even if he was deadly handsome. The kind of handsome that got nice girls in trouble.
Like most Woodvilles, he was a ginger; he wore his dark auburn hair long. Harry was well built, thick about the shoulders and chest. Laila couldn’t help but admire the way he filled out his black velvet dinner jacket. The crisp knot of a cravat set off the sharp angles of his jaw, a jaw that was covered in a fine sheen of dark stubble.
His sharply tailored clothes not withstanding, he looked every inch the marauding Medieval warrior. No doubt he was a mirror image of his ancestors, the ones who claimed this land almost a thousand years before.
The hint of a smirk played at the corner of his full lips.
Laila smirked back. Two can play this game, Harry.
Harry helped himself to a crumbly slice of Stilton. They were on the cheese course – thank God the meal was almost done – and everyone was busy exclaiming over how delicious cook’s selection was.
Laila watched Harry load the slice onto his fork.
Without preamble – without moving his gaze from hers – he curled the fork in his fist and launched the cheese across the table.
It landed with an audible smack on her cousin Marius’s cheek.
Her heart skipped a beat. Out of everyone seated at the massive table, Harry had to hit Marius.
Marius, her raucous cousin. A very drunk, and now very angry, raucous cousin.
The table seemed to suck in a collective breath. Everyone went silent.
Laila’s pulse took off at a sprint as Marius carefully wiped the cheese from his face.
And then he launched out of his chair with all the ferocity of a bear. Forks clattered to plates as Marius reached for Harry’s collar. Harry merely ducked, causing Marius to fall on Rhys, Harry’s hot-headed brother.
All hell broke lose.
Shouts erupted; cheese and jelly and pudding was flung across the table; bouts of spirited fisticuffs broke out.
“You devil!” the Duke of Clare wheezed as he took the Duke of Westick’s throat in his hands.
“You ass!” Westick replied.
It was an all out brawl, borderlands-style.
Priceless china shattered as it met with the stone floor; the women screamed, the men grunted, and the servants ran.
All the while, Harry’s eyes never left Laila’s. He’d somehow managed, quite cleverly, to avoid the wrath of those around him.
She sat very still in her chair as the brawl moved away from the table.
“Lads!” her father Westick boomed. “Lads, to the moat! Let’s throw these bastards where they belong – in the muck!”
His order was met with cries of “huzzah, the moat!”, and a few moments later, the Great Hall was empty, the only sound the roar of the fires in the great stone hearths.
Empty, save for Laila and Harry.
“Are you ill?” she asked him, incredulous.
Harry placed his napkin on the table. “I’ve never felt better. Why, love, do you ask?”
Laila was tempted to tell him and his endearment to sod off, but something about the way his northern accent curled around that word – love became luv – made her pulse hiccup.
She ignored it, her pulse, and squared her shoulders.
“I know who you are, Harry Woodville. I am aware of your…colorful reputation. That Harry lives for public brawling. I’ve never seen that Harry without a bloody lip. You just provoked a fight – why on earth didn’t you take part in it?”
There it was again, that sinisterly handsome smile. His eyes danced as he rose to his feet.
“Perhaps I grow weary of this tiresome peace between our families,” he says. “Perhaps I just want to be alone with you.”
Laila swallowed. “What if I don’t want to be alone with you?”
“Tell me to go.” Harry began to walk around the table. “Tell me to go, my Lady, and I will take my leave.”
His footsteps were strong, measured, a steady counterpoint to her wildly beating heart.
“I know who you are,” she said. “And we’ve been introduced, at Cate and Gunnar’s wedding. But beyond that, we’ve hardly exchanged two words. Why the sudden desire to be alone with me?”
He came to a stop behind her chair. Her body thrummed with the awareness of his closeness, of his virile masculinity.
He leaned forward, enveloping Laila in his arms as he placed his hands on the table in front of her. Only the back of her chair separated their bodies. “Not so sudden,” he murmured in her ear. “I asked you to dance at that wedding, if you remember, but you were just out of mourning, and not up to the task.”
“Ah,” Laila replied, swallowing. She could smell him, smell his skin: the clean, slightly musky scent of sandalwood. “Yes, I remember.”
Her husband the Viscount had been a kind man, a generous one, too. But she’d learned early on in their marriage that he cared more for his hounds and the hunt than he did about spending time with her.
She genuinely mourned his passing, though she was no fool; theirs was not a love match. The Viscount was too…mild mannered.
Too prudent to ever make her blood sing.
But Harry Woodville – Harry was inciting her blood to an all out riot.
This was trouble.
He was trouble.
Which was why she’d turned down that dance. Harry was everything the Viscount wasn’t – passionate, wild, young – and she’d been afraid of what she might do in his arms, what she might feel.
But tonight – tonight Laila wasn’t so afraid.
“And then at the Michaelmas feast.” Harry’s breath tickled her ear. “I couldn’t stop staring at you. The way you danced in your goddess costume – you were radiant. There was that time at the bonfire when you fell from your horse and I caught you. I held you for as long as the surgeon would let me. And then there was that time in the orchard, when our families came together for the harvest, and I held the basket while you picked the apples. You didn’t talk to me then, but I was content to be near you any way I could.”
Laila remembered all that, too.
She leaned back into Harry’s arms, allowing his warmth, his scent to surround her.
This was trouble, but she liked it.
“You are a mesmerizing woman,” Harry continued. “No doubt you’ll get snapped up by some dandy or another while you’re in London for the Season. I couldn’t let you go without telling you how I felt. It was now or never.”
Laila bit her lip. “And how do you feel, my Lord?”
“Harry. Call me Harry.” He pressed his lips to the sensitive gully of her neck, just beneath her ear. She sucked in a breath. That felt lovely. “I’m wild about you, my Lady. Have been since…well. Since I can remember.”
“Laila,” she panted.
“Laila,” he repeated, his voice a growl as his lips moved down her neck. “I am wild about your laugh. Wild about your polite patience with the children and my drunkard cousins. Wild about your eyes and your skin. I’m wild enough about you to stir up trouble between our families.”
She couldn’t take it. The feel of his mouth on her body was igniting a fire within her she believed had gone long dormant. It was now or never; she could kiss Harry Woodville now or forever hold her peace.
Laila rose, turning to face him. He was enormous, a head taller than her at least and twice as broad at the shoulders.
He was looking down at her, those warm blue eyes at once dark and soft. He grasped the top of the chair between them, tossed it aside.
“And you,” he said. “How do you feel, Laila?”
“I feel…” She swallowed for what felt like the hundredth time. “I feel like doing this.”
She stepped forward, closing the space between them, and ran her fingers inside the lapel of his jacket. His whole body tensed; through the fine fabric of his shirt she could feel the heat of his skin. His aliveness, his hugeness was unsettling.
It was unsettling, and so very marvelous.
Laila looked up to see him smirk, even as his nostrils flared.
“I’m all yours,” he said, spreading his arms.
Her fingers worked their way up to his cravat. She gave it a solid tug, bringing his face closer to her own.
“And this.” She pressed her lips to his. Pressed a little harder. “I feel like doing this, too.”
Harry kissed her back. A slow, tentative kiss at first; but Laila hadn’t the patience for that sort of kiss.
Polite kisses were the only sort of kisses she knew.
She wanted something more. Something…wild.
Something only a wild warrior like Harry could give her.
She gave his cravat another a tug, pulling him closer, and she pressed her body against his.
“Kiss me like you mean it,” she said. “Show me exactly how wild you are about me, Harry.”
And oh, he did.
He kissed her deeply, long, urgent strokes that had Laila seeing stars behind her closed lids. He tasted of wine, of a sweetness she couldn’t get enough of. Of their own volition her arms snaked around his neck, pulling him closer, closer, oh, he could never be close enough.
The kiss was deep, and messy, and wild. Exactly what she asked for.
Exactly what she wanted.
Her body went up in flames as his hands moved down her body. Drunk on his kiss, she hardly noticed when he grasped the back of her thighs and lifted her off the ground, settling her bottom on the table.
Harry stepped between her legs, taking her face in his hands. He was reaching behind her then, and she was vaguely aware of the clatter of plates and silverware and pewter as they hit the floor.
Someone was going to hear them. Someone was going to walk into the Great Hall and see her spread out on the table, kissing Harry Woodville like the world was ending.
The idea of being caught only excited Laila more. She’d always been the well-behaved Duke’s daughter, the polite, painfully proper debutante.
But the way Harry kissed her, and touched her – it was worth the risk.
It made her wonder why the hell she hadn’t been wild before. Proper was really a prison, wasn’t it?
Laila lay down on the table, the trestles hard against her back as she pulled Harry down with her. He laughed, a deep, rumbling sound that made her heart swell, and she kissed him, and he kissed her back.
She loved the feel of his weight pressing her into the table. She felt safe, and cherished, and terribly, terribly aroused.
He rolled onto his back, wrapping his arms tightly about her so she rolled with him. She licked a smudge of jam from his cheek; laughing, he swiped a dollop of whipped cream onto his thumb and pressed it to her lips, his eyes darkening as he watched her eat it.
Laila wanted Harry, more than she’d ever wanted anything.
He was trailing his lips down her throat again, teasing her tender flesh with his teeth.
“Upstairs,” she whispered. “I keep rooms here at the castle. Let’s go upstairs, please, Harry.”
Harry’s mouth went still. “What,” he said. “The table not to your liking? It’s a bit hard on the knees, I’ll admit, but I’m rather enjoying the jam, and your lips…”
“The table’s been lovely,” she said, smiling. “But it’s now or never, Harry. I leave for London in a few weeks, and you…”
“Right. I’ve got to get back to terrorizing the countryside, engaging in duels, that sort of thing.”
He met her eyes. There was no telling when they’d be together again – when they’d have a private moment to steal away and strip each other naked.
“Please,” she said. “You would really deny a lonely widow her Christmas wish?”
He rolled his eyes. “You’re rather shameless, aren’t you?”
“Harry, I’m rolling around on a table with you in my father’s Great Hall. Yes, I’m sure.”
He looked at her for a long, heated moment.
And then, that smirk playing at the corner of his mouth, he stood. She let out a small yelp as he scooped her in his arms and planted a wet kiss on her cheek.
“Only because it’s Christmas,” he said. “And because I’m wild about you.”
Laila snuggled against his chest, the deep, soothing sound of his heart in her ear.
The evening had started out dull.
Now it was anything but.
TO BE CONTINUED…
In an age of stately decorum, the Hope Diamond was a source of delicious intrigue—and a font of unimaginable adventure…Though not of noble birth, Thomas Hope has a skill in banking that’s made him one of the richest, most trusted men in London. Still, he keeps his dubious past hidden. So when an old acquaintance calls on Hope to help acquire the infamous French Blue Diamond, he’s desperate to be discreet. He never expects that his biggest concern shouldn’t be losing his reputation, but his heart…Sophia Blaise is determined to make a brilliant match with this season’s most eligible, most titled bachelor, but her true passion has been ignited by the incredible stories she hears while secretly transcribing the memoirs of a notorious Madam. After a night of clandestine writing ends with Sophia caught up in a scandalous adventure of her own—with an alluring banker—she begins to question whether she’s suited to the proper life she’s always known…Caught up in a thrilling exploit and unexpected romance, Sophia must make a choice between what her head knows is safe and what her heart desperately desires, before both slip from her grasp forever…
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