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Friday, December 15, 2017

A Historical Christmas Event with Erica Ridley

Erica Ridley is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical romance novels. Her two most popular series, the Dukes of War and Rogues to Riches, feature roguish peers and dashing war heroes who find love amongst the splendor and madness of Regency England. When not reading or writing romances, Erica can be found riding camels in Africa, zip-lining through rainforests in Costa Rica, or getting hopelessly lost in the middle of Budapest.
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This holiday story is a bonus epilogue to The Viscount’s Christmas Temptation, the first (and free!) book in my popular DUKES OF WAR regency romance series. I hope you love Lady Amelia as much as Lord Sheffield and I do. Happy reading!!

London, England

Amelia St. John, Viscountess Sheffield, was still in the midst of saving the world when yet another footman burst into the rose parlor to sound the alarm of impending disaster.

A lesser woman might become perturbed at the endless flow of interruptions, but Amelia welcomed each one with delight. They were not her disasters, after all. Plans laid by her careful hand had never once ended in catastrophe. And while she would never consider herself a busybody, Amelia could not deny the deep sense of pleasure from putting everyone else’s problems to rights.

She dashed off a detailed, twelve-point missive for her footman to return to the easily excitable Lady Grenville, then turned to smile at the golden-curled four-year-old drowsing atop the bay window cushions with her favorite blanket curled about her chubby shoulders.

At the first sign of snow, Frances had raced into Amelia’s parlor, the nanny at her heels, bursting with excitement. Snow meant winter. Winter meant Christmas. And Frances had been very, very good this year, had she not? Surely she was finally big enough for a pony of her own.

Indeed, not only did Frances deserve a holiday to remember, Amelia’s fun-loving husband was overdue for a particularly perfect gift of his own. Something he was not expecting in the least.

She never used to like surprises. Not until Benedict came into her life. Even though Amelia now took care to schedule time to be spontaneous, she still preferred to always know everything that was about to happen, so that she could plan for every contingency.

Like today. WHIMSY was written at the top of this morning’s ledger, and she had planned a wonderful surprise for Benedict. All he had to do was not be home. And since Benedict spent the second Saturday of every month playing cards with his friends at their favorite gentlemen’s club, the present she’d spent the past three months planning was about to go off without a hitch.

“There you ladies are.” Benedict strolled into the parlor looking impossibly handsome in his black tailored greatcoat, matching rakish hat, and fluffy woolen scarf that brought out flecks of green in his sparkling hazel eyes.

As she rose to kiss him, the same butterflies tickled her stomach as they had since the day they met. She knew how lucky she was to have him, and hoped he would feel the same way when he returned home in the wee hours of the morning to discover his once-ruined ballroom restored into the most elegant and inviting dancing chambers in all of Mayfair. The eightieth annual Sheffield Christmas Eve Ball would be the toast of the ton.

“Off to your club?” she asked lightly as he pressed a soft kiss to Frances’s golden curls. The sprinkle of snow had stopped. The streets would be perfectly clear for traveling.

Benedict spun to face Amelia, his eyes glowing with delight as he pulled her into his arms. “No club today, my love! Cards have been cancelled. It’s the very best news.”

“Cancelled?” Her smile froze in horror. “That’s certainly…news.”

Although she’d contracted every able-bodied artisan from London to Leeds, there was only a short window for them to complete their handiwork without Benedict being nearby to spoil the surprise.

He had to leave before the workers arrived. There was no other option.

“It’s too beautiful a day to stay cooped inside. Let’s go enjoy it.” He danced her about the room. “Come ice-skating with me.”

“Ice-skating?” Amelia swallowed. “I don’t know how to ice-skate.”

More importantly, he had to be gone, and she had to stay right here. No matter how detailed her instructions, any number of things could go awry if she were not present to solve them. The remodeling of the ballroom, the ponies she’d ordered for Frances and her cousin Noah, the future Duke of Ravenwood… No, it was impossible. She could not be gone for so much as a single minute. Benedict would simply have to find other plans without her.

“You don’t know how to ice-skate,” he said as he kissed the tip of her nose, “because it isn’t something that can be learned from the pages of a book. If it were, I’m sure you’d be a world-class ice-skater, mountain-climber, fire-breather, kraken-hunter…”

“So I like books,” Amelia interrupted with a laugh, seizing onto a perfect excuse. “So does Frances. I promised her we would spend the day reading as many picture books as she liked.”

“Frances is asleep,” Benedict pointed out. “And you can read to her when we get back. In fact, we both can. I think it’s high time you ladies stop hoarding the library all to yourselves.”

“The three of us wouldn’t fit in the library at the same time,” she teased.

Only a mild exaggeration. Ever since her personal collection had been added to the mix, their joint library was so stacked with books that the shelves rose higher than she could tiptoe to see.

Which, inconvenient and impractical as it was, filled her with great pride. She had always dreamt of living in a home whose library contained more books than anyone could possibly read, although she very much intended to do her best. Indeed, she was planning to order a few more volumes for her daughter every month, until the first few rows of books were child-appropriate throughout the entire library. Frances would someday have a cornucopia of books and illustrations at her fingertips. Amelia intended to organize the project right after Christmas.

A glance at the clock on the mantel indicated she had far more pressing matters to resolve. The workers would arrive within the hour. Time was running out to get Benedict as far from home as possible. The last thing she wanted to do was disappoint her husband who adored Christmas almost as much as he adored her. She was going to have to trust in the specificity of her detailed instructions, the wisdom of her hired craftsmen, the collective experience of the stablehands receiving the ponies into the mews…

Nothing for it. She was going to have to strap on razor thin skates and risk her neck on a (hopefully) frozen pond.

“Frances is to eat a proper lunch,” Amelia instructed the nanny with a sigh. “Cinnamon biscuits is not a meal.”

“Haven’t I seen you eat a plateful for breakfast?” Benedict whispered into her ear.

“I am in no danger of stunting my growth,” she responded primly. “Only in danger of twisting my ankle, or falling through a thin patch of ice, or cracking my head on—”

Grinning, he swung her out of the cozy parlor and toward the front door before she could continue her deadpan litany of potential disasters.

“You cannot limit your experiences only to those for which you’ve personally planned every detail,” he chided as he settled a warm bonnet atop her chignon.

“I can,” she muttered with a sideways glance through her eyelashes.

Her woolen scarf was lined with silk, to avoid itching whilst creating maximum warmth. Her fur-lined pelisse would not only protect her from the cold, but also provide a welcome buffer between her trembling limbs and their inevitable impending impact with the snow-dusted ice.

The skating pond itself, however, was not only alarmingly outside of her control, there was no method to determine what factors were even at play. Was the entire surface frozen? How deep did the ice extend? What impact might the weight, balance, and trajectory of the other skaters have on the risks of cracks in the ice?

By the time their carriage crunched over the frozen grass at the edge of the park, Amelia was more tightly wound than her office clock. Were it not for the December wind having frozen her smile to her face, her abject terror would be palpably visible to the twenty… forty… sixty… eighty… Good Lord, there were over a hundred wool-mittened madmen lurching about the fragile ice!

It would be folly to add two more souls to the mix. She had been consuming an impressive quantity of holiday biscuits as of late, and her tall, well-muscled husband would surely be far safer on solid land.

Heedless of potential disaster, Benedict led her straight to a stone bench near the edge of the pond and crouched to affix a pair of skates to her half-boots. Amelia swallowed her fear as each metal strap snicked firmly into place. Benedict would not let her drown. Or concuss herself on the ice. Or—

“Ready?” He lifted her gloved hands in his and pulled her to her feet.

She was not ready. But neither was the surprise being crafted for him at home. She would have to skate until her lips turned blue, and then likely an hour or two more to be safe. If indeed this foolhardy disregard of nature and gravity could be considered safe.

From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a few children and several young ladies being pulled across the ice in bright red skating-sleds. Her mouth fell open in surprise. “We could have brought a conveyance? Benedict, did you know one could rent—”

He swung her onto the ice before she could finish the question, and her words disappeared with the wind.

She gripped his hands tight as he began to drag her stiff, shaking limbs toward the throngs of lazily circling skaters. Every rut in the ice jarred her to the bones, every wayward elbow from racing passerby a missile to be dodged. She immediately closed her eyes.

Benedict laughed, and bent to kiss her cheek beneath her bonnet. “Open your eyes, my darling. You’re missing all the fun.”

Amelia forced her eyes to squint open slightly, and gasped to realize she could see the shadow of her reflection hovering beneath the transparent layer of ice. Her heart pounded in alarm.

“The ice,” she stuttered through chattering teeth. “I can see myself in the water below!”

“Then don’t look down,” her traitorous husband advised with a twinkle in his eyes as he pulled her along with the crowd. “You’re perfectly safe. If you need a distraction…use your memory pantry. How many people are out enjoying the day?”

“One hundred and five,” she answered immediately. “Plus me.”

He grinned back at her. “One hundred and six, then. Anyone you recognize?”

Everyone, of course. Amelia considered it a point of pride to memorize everything that could be memorized about the world she lived in. She nodded toward the first group. “Those are the Kingsleys and their two children. Handsome family. Just ahead, Isaac Downing is skating with Heath Grenville. What they’ve got to talk about is anyone’s guess. Likely the unnerving conditions of this skating pond.”

Benedict’s eyes twinkled and he squeezed her hand. “Who else?”

Amelia lifted her chin. “Over there are Lord and Lady Wainwright. Some find her scandalous, but I personally am impressed. She seems to have won the heart of society’s most notorious rake even faster than the fortnight I’d allotted to myself.”

Benedict’s gaze snapped to hers. “You tried to win the heart of society’s most notorious rake?”

“Not that part,” she assured him. “I had given myself two weeks to interview and become betrothed to the most eligible peer with a rank higher than…”

“Higher than what, pray tell?” Benedict asked politely.

“Old history,” Amelia said, and attempted to change the subject. “Should we be concerned about the men digging holes in the center of the pond? They cannot possibly think of fishing in this weather, can they?”

“All I can think about is when this infamous fortnight of husband analysis might have taken place. You and I were betrothed within a few weeks of meeting each other, were we not?”

“Twelve days,” she murmured. “But who’s counting?”

“And during those twelve days,” her husband continued darkly, “am I to understand that you were actively engaged in courting other, potentially more eligible suitors, with titles higher than, perhaps, that of viscount?”

“Nothing of the sort,” she assured him brightly.

“Then what, precisely, is the story, darling?”

Amelia coughed into her scarf to hide her immediate lack of rejoinder and let out a little scream as one of the ice-sweepers cut far too close across their path.

“Perhaps this is not the time for this discussion,” she blurted once she had caught her breath. “I think ever so much clearer when my life is not flashing before my eyes.”

“Perhaps this is exactly the right time,” her husband countered, his eyes on hers. “I demand an explanation whilst your clever brain is too distracted to manipulate the conversation elsewhere.”

“I would never…” she began, then trailed off.

He arched a brow.

“All right. Yes,” she admitted. “Control of my surroundings is my greatest talent. However, although I had planned to use your Christmas Eve ball as a suitable hunting ground for my future husband, by the time the date arrived—”

“That is why you were so determined the fĂȘte must go on?” Benedict gaped at her in surprise. “You showed up at my townhouse and never gave me a moment’s peace for an entire week because you were hoping to win the heart of someone else?”

“That was the original plan,” she said quickly. “A competent woman must adapt to her surroundings and change her goals accordingly. You were both shocking and entertaining that night at Almack’s, but I knew you were dangerous the moment you insisted we attend the theatre for fun.”

“I knew you were dangerous the moment you turned up on my doorstep,” he said with a shake of his head. “Who shows up at a total stranger’s house with a blanket and a book?”

“Only a very stupid person would not,” she assured him. “Just think how bored one finds oneself whenever there is nothing to read.”

His eyes crinkled as they merged with the whirling skaters. “You’re raising Frances to be just like you. I’m far more likely to find her in the library than the nursery.”

“And I couldn’t be more proud.”

Next year, she promised herself. As soon as the holidays were over, she would dedicate every spare moment to remodeling the library with Frances’s needs in mind.

“That makes two of us.” He glanced up at the sky as dancing white snowflakes began to swirl down around them. “Isn’t it beautiful? Someday we’ll have to bring Frances out here with us.”

“Perhaps next week,” Amelia suggested grudgingly. She might still be terrified, but Frances took after her father as much as her mother, and would undoubtedly be delighted to slide about the ice with her parents. “We could make it a holiday tradition.”

Benedict lifted her hand to his lips. “Falling in love with you over and over again will always be my favorite holiday tradition.”

If it were not for her instability atop thin metal skates, Amelia might have thrown herself into his arms right then and there. She fell more in love with her husband every day of her life, and couldn’t wait to for him to see the surprise she’d planned.

She frowned as the wind sent white gusts billowing through the skating crowd. The snow was lovely and Christmassy, but it made her worry about the workers installing her gift. She hoped they completed the new dais and dance floor quickly in order to close up the terrace before the gentle flakes turned into a blizzard.

Benedict pulled out his pocket watch. “Perhaps they’ll have finished by now.”

Amelia sent him a sharp glance. “Perhaps who will have finished?”

He shoved his watch back into his pocket and blinked at her innocently. “Ready to go back home? I hear there are cinnamon biscuits for lunch.”

“Who may have finished?” she repeated as he pulled her across the ice. “Finished what? Where?”

He could not possibly know about the surprises she had planned. She had been so careful. Every detail had been planned and re-planned a thousand times. Absolutely nothing had been left to chance. No one would dare breathe a word and risk her censure. Until now, her biggest fear was that in her absence, mismatched ponies would arrive, or the artisans would attach moulding at the wrong angle. Mistakes only she would note, because Benedict was not privy to her plans. That was why it was called a surprise.

“What on earth are you talking about?” she demanded as their carriage made its way through snow-dusted streets toward home.

“You’ll see,” he responded cryptically. “There may be a surprise waiting, is all.”

There should be two surprises—both of them hers. Surprises she planned herself were the only ones she liked. Too much could go wrong with other people planning things. Dull paint. Unmitered edges. Mass hysteria.

As their coach finally turned onto their street, Benedict fairly bounced with excitement.

“Ta-da!” he said as their block came into view. “Welcome home to the library of your dreams. More shelves, thicker carpet, and rolling ladders so that even the highest books are easily accessible.”

But as the carriage pulled closer, they were not greeted by the library of her dreams—or the dance floor of his. Rather than close up the terrace at the first threat of snow, one side of their house gaped open… with a straight line of horse hooves imprinted in the snow.

Leading right inside to the orchestra.

Benedict swung her out of the carriage with a mystified look on his face. “Are there wild horses loose in Mayfair?”

“Not wild horses. Frances’s Christmas gift. Trampling over your new dance floor.” Amelia buried her face in her hands and let out a low groan. “I told you everything goes sixes and sevens if I’m not here to oversee.”

“Horses are our first guests on our new dance floor?” Benedict burst out laughing. “And I told you things that go awry make far better stories than things that go according to plan. Just one horse, is it?”

“Two,” Amelia admitted, a smile teasing the corner of her lips. “Prince and Buttercup. They’re probably eating the new rolling ladders.”

Benedict couldn’t stop laughing. “Perfect. We can ride them out of the library together.” He held out his hand, his eyes crinkling. “Come, my love. It shall be our newest holiday tradition.”

Amelia gave up trying to be respectable and placed her hand in his. The best laid plans might lead to ponies chewing up a dance floor, but as long as they also led her straight to her husband’s arms, every day was perfect.

With a whoop, they raced hand-in-hand up their snow-covered path to greet a life full of surprises and romance together.
It was the best Christmas yet.

Certain individuals might consider Lady Amelia Pembroke a managing sort of female, but truly, most people would be lost without her help. Why, the latest on-dit is that rakish Viscount Sheffield is canceling the fĂȘte of the year because he hasn't time for silly soirees. He doesn't need time—he needs her!

When a flash of lightning destroys the venue for his family's annual Christmas ball, Lord Benedict Sheffield intends to enjoy a relaxing holiday for once. But after twelve days of beguiling Lady Amelia's guerrilla tactics, he's up to his cravat with tinsel...and tumbling head over heels in love.

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  1. Love the excerpt and thanks for the chance :)

  2. Love the covers they are beautiful. Did you have the same person do all the covers?

  3. I loved the excerpt and the covers are amazing. Thank you for the chance. xoxoxo