Jane Ashford discovered Georgette Heyer in junior high school and was captivated by the glittering world and witty language of Regency England. That delight was part of what led her to study English literature and travel widely in Britain and Europe. She has written historical and contemporary romances, and her books have been published in Sweden, Italy, England, Denmark, France, Russia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Spain, as well as the U.S. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews.
Reuniting with a former love on Christmas Eve with Jane Ashford
There are different ways to mark the Christmas holidays. I’ve spent a number of lovely Christmases in the homes of friends, so I thought I’d tell the story of someone who did that, and found himself also visiting the past.
Sleet peppered Sir Lionel Harton’s face as he rode along a lane near his Yorkshire home. Gusts of wind got under his cloak and chilled his bones. His horse bridled and danced, aggrieved as being called out on this filthy day. But Christmas Eve was a time for conviviality, not for sitting at a dining table alone. It was a time for family. Sir Lionel had lost his wife to a sudden fever four years ago, however, and his children lived far away. This year he would have to be satisfied with the knowledge that Andrew and Emily were happy and successful, their three small children thriving. It was difficult, even dangerous, to travel with infants in this hard weather. He would see them all next summer.
He urged his mount onward, refusing to be melancholy. He’d had a rich and fortunate life, fifty-five years of fascinating experiences, farflung travels, good luck and harrowing trials. Love, too, of many sorts. And of course it wasn’t nearly over. God willing. He’d been invited to a good friend’s house for the holiday festivities and expected to enjoy them thoroughly. He and John Trainor had explored every corner of this neighborhood as boys and hunted and shot here together as young men. They were brothers in all but name. John’s wife and children were the next best thing to his own kin.
At last, the warmly lit windows of Thistlecroft Manor emerged from the thickening sleet. Sir Lionel rode directly to the stables and put his long-suffering horse into the care of the grooms. As a familiar visitor, he entered the house by the back way and left his wet cloak and dripping hat on hooks in the hall.
Swags of evergreen draped the stair rail, scenting the air. Upstairs, the welcome warmth of a roaring fire filled the drawing room, and John surged forward at once to greet him. “There you are! Elinor was afraid you’d be quite frozen.”
Sir Lionel made his bow to John’s wife and then to their children, Grant, Katharine, and Mary and their families. The twelve of them filled the room pleasingly. There was a tantalizing aroma of hot spiced cider
“And of course you remember Sophia,” said his host then, indicating a sofa hidden by the others until now.
Sir Lionel turned to discover a figure seated there, half in shadow, and found he couldn’t move. He’d heard that John’s sister had been widowed last year. The news had evoked a barrage of memories. And now here she was, mere feet away. He hadn’t seen her for thirty-five years.
Sights, scents, sensations from their long-ago idyll overwhelmed him. He’d been nineteen, just down from Oxford. He ridden over to visit John and discovered that his friend’s younger sister had changed utterly in his absence. At seventeen, Sophia was an elfin marvel, with hair black as midnight, sparkling hazel eyes that seemed to draw light from the air, and a lithe, rounded figure designed to drive men mad. He’d taken one look and fallen hard. Imagine his amazement and delight when she’d admitted she felt the same.
And so had begun a summer of fleeting encounters and secret meetings. They’d sat together in this very drawing room and embraced in secluded forest nooks outside it. On more than one unforgettable afternoon, they’d come very close to going beyond the line and giving in to their shared passion. It still enflamed him to recall the moment he’d slid daring fingertips along the silken skin of her inner thigh and made her gasp.
It had seemed so delicious to keep their attachment to themselves. No one else had known the strength of it. And then in the course of a day, it seemed, Lionel had been given his first mission with the Foreign Office. They’d barely had time to stammer a few promises before he was whirled away, on a voyage expected to take more than two years. Sophia had been left behind, without even regular letters, to make her London debut and enter society. When the news of her marriage had finally reached him, after the two years had stretched to three, Lionel had thought his heart quite broken. Though he couldn’t blame her after such a time. Eventually, he’d fought down the bitter disappointment and slowly moved on.
The past faded from his inner eye. Sir Lionel stepped closer and made his bow to his youthful love. She wasn’t that gorgeous seventeen-year-old any longer, of course. He faced a woman of three and fifty with comfortable curves, strands of gray in her raven hair and faint lines marking her still-lovely face. But what of that? The same was true of him. Indeed, he was more weathered from the outlandish places his work had taken him. The riveting point was: her hazel eyes were just the same – bright and enticing. Their gleam suggested she’d been recalling their youth as well. She smiled, and it was the same heart-stopping smile.
“May I join you?” he said. At precisely the same moment, she put a hand on the sofa cushion to invite him to sit.
He sank down next to her, prey to an odd dual perception. He felt the young Sophia so strongly, the focus of all his youthful desires. And yet he fully appreciated the present one as well. She was compellingly attractive. He couldn’t stop staring. But the silence was lengthening; he ought to say something. He tried. “Sophia,” was all that emerged.
“Lionel,” she replied, her voice low and musical.
He gazed at her. “It’s been so… Are you, ah, staying a while?”
“A month,” she said.
“Ah.” It wasn’t terribly long. And yet it was enough time to meet and talk, perhaps to rekindle a connection that had illuminated his young life. Who could tell? “I’m so glad,” he said, emotion vibrating in his tone.
Their gaze held. They shared a look brimming with promise. “Happy Christmas,” said Lionel.
“And to you,” said Sophia.
Life is predictable for a Duke's first son
As eldest son of the Duke of Langford, Nathaniel Gresham sees his arranged marriage to Lady Violet Devere as just another obligation to fulfill – highly suitable, if unexciting. But as Violet sets out to transform herself from dowdy wallflower to dazzling young duchess-to-be, proper Nathaniel decides to prove he's a match for his new bride's vivacity and daring.
Or so he once thought...
Oppressed by her family all her life, Lady Violet can't wait to enjoy the freedom of being a married woman. But then Violet learns her family's sordid secret, and she's faced with an impossible choice – does she tell Nathaniel and risk losing him, or does she hide it and live a lie?
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