Theresa Romain is the bestselling author of historical romances, including the Matchmaker trilogy, the Holiday Pleasures series, the Royal Reward series, and the Romance of the Turf trilogy. Praised as “one of the rising stars of Regency historical romance” (Booklist), her highly acclaimed novels have been chosen for the Smart Bitches Trashy Books Sizzling Book Club, featured in the DABWAHA tournament, and deemed “Desert Isle Keepers” by All About Romance. A member of Romance Writers of America and its Regency specialty chapter The Beau Monde, Theresa is hard at work on her next novel from her home in the Midwest.
Playing Matchmaker on Christmas Eve with Theresa Romain
This is a scene from my holiday historical romance, SEASON FOR DESIRE. Estella, Lady Irving, is a widowed countess of middle age who has long been a matchmaker for the young women in her family. Her first marriage was unhappy, and she never expected to find love herself. But Richard Rutherford, an American widower in England on a hunt for encoded messages and long-hidden jewels, has matchmaking plans of his own. He doesn’t see Estella as she sees herself, and this Christmas Eve, as they’re snowbound in a Yorkshire inn, the matchmaker finally gets a taste of her own medicine.
* * *
“Christmas Eve,” said Estella, Lady Irving, “should be spent sitting before a fire large enough to melt one’s eyebrows, drinking brandied chocolate strong enough to melt everything else.” She extended her hands to the fire in the private parlor.
“What is the present state of your eyebrows?” Richard poured out a cup of something hot from a service the inn’s maid had just brought in. Estella did not see a flask anywhere; this was unlikely to be spirituous. Damn.
“Unmelted. Sadly.” She drew her chair closer to the fire; any more and she would be sitting on the coals. Midday light filtered gray-blue through the pebbled-ice surface over the window. They seemed glassed away from the world, and in a prison of glass there was no warmth. No escape. “Aren’t you anxious at being trapped in this inn?”
“Should I be? Will that help melt the snow so we can set out sooner?”
She glared at him. He smiled. “Thinking on it won’t make a difference, Estella. You said you knew how we should go on once weather permitted. We shall put the code into the hands of your clever niece Louisa. Until then, let us try to enjoy ourselves.” He handed her a teacup full of something suspiciously brown and syrupy-looking.
“What is this?”
“Coffee.” Hitching his trouser legs up at the knee, he seated himself across from her. “I made it very sweet for you.”
“Because I’m so bitter?”
He took a sip from his own cup. “No. Because that’s how I like it best, and you told me you didn’t care how you took your coffee.”
“A few days ago, at Castle Parr. When that footman, Jory, brought us refreshments while we were wreathing all those statue heads.”
“Oh.” The cup warmed her fingers. “I didn’t realize you’d remembered that.” One tentative sip won her over. The smell was almost acrid, but the taste of it was liquid heat, liquid sugar. “That’s not half-bad.”
“High praise.” He reached up to set his cup on the mantel, then settled back into the chair with drowsy eyes. Such calm and peace; he made the simple wooden chair look like the softest-cushioned fauteuil.
How dare he be so calm when she was worried? How could he feel so peaceful, so unaffected by her, when her fingers tingled every time she caught sight of him?
She ran her fingers over the paste gems on the front of her aquamarine turban. Brightness. She must remember that. “So. When you get to London, you think you’ll find some jewels and set up a shop of your own.”
“Half-right. I have no idea where, or whether, I will find my late wife’s jewels. But I will set up a shop of my own. I’ve already found the perfect spot in Ludgate Hill, not far from Rundell and Bridge.”
Was it the American accent that made him sound so certain? Where the London accent tripped and twirled, his speech rolled over consonants like a gentle boulder. As though to speak something was to make it happen.
Oh, it wasn’t just the sight of him that drew her. It was the sound of him, too.
But her contrary habits had been formed long ago. “London society is devoted to Rundell and Bridge—not just for jewelry, but for silver and gold plate. An American competitor is sure to fail.”
He opened his eyes: deep blue about a ring of brown. “But that is not what I am at all. I’ve no thought of competing with them on their terms.”
Estella snorted. “That can hardly be called business. All right, what sort of gewgaws will the fashionable young ladies of London be wearing next season?”
“Oh, you probably have a better idea of that than I do. More influence, certainly.”
“Where is your pride? You’ll never take the ton by storm unless you are far haughtier.”
He chuckled, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Haughtiness works for some, but I don’t think I could manage it. I’ll do business in my own way. A different way.”
“And what way is that?”
Rubbing a hand along his angular jaw, he considered. “If I love a piece, it will show. And that enthusiasm will make it sell.”
“All right.” She took a sip of her bittersweet coffee. “Sell something to me so I can see whether you’ve the skill to back up your claim. Try to sell me . . . oh, how about my turban?”
His dark brows knit. After a pause, he said, “If you’ll forgive me, I do not love your turban. I don’t think I could sell it.”
She flailed for a place to smash down her coffee cup. With no table at hand, she had to settle for draining the cup and slamming it back into its saucer.
Cursed man. He looked not the slightest bit abashed. “Why do you wear such—things?” Left out was the adjective dreadful, but Estella heard the space of it, unuttered but unmistakably there.
“Because I can. I can do and be and wear whatever is offensive, and people have to accept it because of my rank and age and fortune.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I have horrified you.” Disappointment mingled with bitter triumph; she had known he would falter eventually.
“No, not in the slightest.” He folded one leg up, resting the foot on the opposite thigh. “But it sounds as though you don’t like the things you do. Or be or wear, if that’s the way you put it. And that’s what I’m sorry to hear.”
Estella occupied the next moments with the careful drawing of breath. Air seemed thick, too thick to enter her lungs without great ragged pulls.
“Where it peeks from the edge of your turban, your hair is quite a pretty color,” added Richard, calm as ever. “A true auburn. My late wife called hers auburn, but it was red like Giles’s.”
He spoke this as he would any fond memory, with a light matter-of-fact smile teasing his lips. When he mentioned his wife, his grief seemed neatly folded away like a favorite old silk.
Estella had never grieved for her husband. No, after her marriage, she had grieved only for herself. The late earl had made her wealthy, but he had been careless and lecherous, his young wife a pretty toy with which he played whenever, however he wished. There had been no purpose to seeking harmony with him; no reason to strive to better herself. A hard shell grew over her heart, so quickly that it was brittle.
She like the idea of a softer strength, like Richard’s folded-away memory.
“Did you not like your wife’s hair?” She shaped the words carefully. Naked feeling was far more unseemly than a naked body.
“Of course I liked it. It was part of her.” His surprise was no more than a ruffle on the surface of an untroubled pond. “But maybe she didn’t, since she called it by another color. Do you not like your hair? Is that why you cover it with turbans all the time?”
“No, I wear turbans because I’m too vain to wear a lace cap. You call my hair auburn, but it’s mostly gray. I’m old, Richard.”
“Do you feel old?”
“I am old.” She was a great-aunt. Her sixtieth birthday loomed less than two years away. Fifty-eight; it seemed impossible that she should be fifty-eight and trundling about northern England. Fifty-eight and sitting beside a handsome man, wondering why he asked her so many questions. Not liking the questions, exactly, but not wanting them to stop.
“But how do you feel?” Richard was looking at her, really looking, as no one had for decades. That warm brown ring about his pupils pulled at Estella; though she had drunk all her coffee, her throat had gone dry.
“I feel . . . different.”
He smiled, all warm eyes. “I like different.”
She smiled back. It was an uncertain expression that had to crack its way through the shell about her. When it reached her lips, it wobbled—but it was there.
Unfolding his legs, he slapped his hands onto the flat of his thighs. “As long as we are at our leisure, how about a game of cards or chess? You may name the stakes.”
Her heart beat a little more quickly. At some point, she had stopped feeling cold. “Cards, then.”
“Cards you shall have. Wait here, please; I’ll go find a deck.”
As soon as the parlor door closed behind him, she removed her aquamarine turban. Scrubbing her fingers through her short-cropped hair, she woke and eased her tense scalp, then replaced the turban.
After all, she liked it. And Richard liked her. Or he liked her being different, or feeling different, or—well, maybe it came to the same thing.
The turban was not heavy to wear, no more than a few ounces of cloth and paste jewels. But she felt as though a much greater weight had been lifted.
PROPERLY WICKEDLike her four sisters, Lady Audrina Bradleigh is expected to marry a duke, lead fashion, and behave with propriety. Consequently, Audrina pursues mischief with gusto, attending scandalous parties and indulging in illicit affairs. But when an erstwhile lover threatens to ruin her reputation, Audrina has no choice but to find a respectable husband at once.Who would guess that her search would lead her to Giles Rutherford, a blunt-spoken American on a treasure hunt of his own? When a Christmas snowstorm strands the pair at a country inn, more secrets are traded than gifts—along with kisses that require no mistletoe—and Audrina discovers even proper gentlemen have their wicked side…
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