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Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Historical Christmas Event with Sara Ramsey

Sara Ramsey is a historical romance author with great taste in Champagne, bad taste in movies, and a serious love for journals and washi tape. Her award-winning historical romances feature plenty of devious dukes, daring ladies, and happily ever afters. Sara has called both Iowa and San Francisco home, but she's currently wandering the globe while writing novels and searching for the perfect cup of tea. Find out more about her work at

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Hello! I’m thrilled to share a Christmas story with you - I hope you all enjoy it. This story, “The Countess’s Christmas Adventure,” features a secondary character from my Heiress Games series. Emma, the widowed Lady Maidenstone, is in her early twenties, but she was married for several years to a much older man. She’s navigating Christmas without him and missing him more than she had expected - but then, a very unexpected Christmas gift shakes her out of her slump.

You can read this without reading the Heiress Games series, but this story will make more sense if you read them. You can start with Duke of Thorns, followed by Lord of Deceit. And  today I’m giving away an ebook copy of the final book in the series, Taking the Earl.

I hope you enjoy Emma’s story!

The Countess’s Christmas Adventure

28 December 1813
Briarley House, London

Emma, the widowed Lady Maidenstone, sat in the grand drawing room of Briarley House It was three days after Christmas and she’d had a lovely few weeks in London — but suddenly, she wished she were somewhere else.

Anywhere else.

But where else could she have gone? She had barely spoken to her parents since they’d encouraged her to marry Lord Maidenstone several years earlier. At the time, she was nineteen and he was nearly seventy. She had not been excited by the prospect. She’d done her duty, marrying Maidenstone so that he would pay off her parents’ debts — but she’d never felt close to them again.

She might have stayed at Maidenstone Abbey for Christmas. Her dead husband’s ancestral home in Devonshire always felt magical, especially in winter. But it wasn’t her home anymore.

Instead, she’d come to London with her husband’s granddaughters. Callista, Octavia, and Lucretia Briarley were near Emma’s age. She adored all three of them. They were friendly and warm; none of them treated her like a poor relation.

But spending the holidays with them in London also meant spending the holidays with their new husbands. Emma liked all three men. The last Briarley women had made excellent matches — not only were their husbands wealthy, but they were also utterly, completely, totally in love.

So in love that it was very nearly nauseating for Emma to watch them together.

She’d never had that kind of love — the kind with public sparks, the kind with obvious physical affection. Her marriage to Lord Maidenstone had been something else entirely. When they’d appeared in public together, she’d always noticed the speculative looks and heard the muffled whispers.

Her youth, compared to his age, was so striking that it was almost offensive. The world looked at her like someone to be pitied — someone who must be awaiting rescue.

But no one guessed that Lord Maidenstone had already rescued her.

He wasn’t perfect; sometimes, he was insufferable, a mixture of aristocratic arrogance and Briarley eccentricity that even a saint could lose patience with. He could spend hours talking about the centuries of Briarleys who had gone before them — tales so wild, so full of murder and mayhem, that Emma would have thought he’d fabricated it all if she hadn’t seen the graveyard full of Briarleys with suspiciously short lifespans.

The rumor was that he’d married her for her beauty. But he’d really married her to try for a son. All of his male heirs had died prematurely, as Briarleys often did, and all Lord Maidenstone wanted was to carry on the name.

Emma had done her best. Her mother had given her a rather dire, euphemism-filled talk about what to expect on her wedding night, told her that she could never say no to her husband, and left it at that.

But when Lord Maidenstone had entered her chamber that first night and found her staring at him warily, covers pulled up to her chin, he’d laughed and offered to play chess with her instead. She was horrible at chess; that first night, he beat her handily within a few minutes, then kissed her forehead and went to bed. But as they played over the next few months, she got more confident — and by the time she was able to beat him at chess, she was willing to try to give him a son.

They had tried. And sex wasn’t as dire as her mother made it sound, although Emma suspected it could be much better than what she’d felt. But having a child wasn’t meant to be. And so now she was a guest in the house her son should have inherited, watching other couples love each other, while she sat alone and ruminated.

This wasn’t what she was supposed to be doing. Before Maidenstone had died, he’d encouraged her to go off and have adventures — and, if she ever returned to Devonshire, to visit his grave with a flask of whisky and tell him all about them. He’d been so magnificent, in the end.

He was adamant that she not mourn for him — but she couldn’t seem to stop. It had almost become a habit now. She’d tried to meet other men when she came to London — tried to take her mind off what she’d lost, off the fact that she’d failed to have a son and so failed to carry on the Briarley name.

But none of them interested her…or, to be fair, only one of them interested her. She’d seen him across a ballroom two weeks earlier. They never made eye contact, but she felt like he was watching her. And, when she wasn’t being observed, she watched him back. He was very handsome, but it wasn’t his face or body that drew her in. It was the fact that he was always surrounded by friends — as though others adored him and loved listening to the stories he told them.

Perhaps she’d never find love again. But that kind of man intrigued her.

Of course, when she’d asked Octavia who the man was, Octavia had taken one look at him, said, “Lord Sutton? I must introduce you,” and then proclaimed to Callista and Lucretia that she was definitely going to win their wager. That was when Emma discovered that her step-granddaughters had placed bets on which of them could find a lover for Emma first.

And that was when she vowed not to ask any more questions about men.

But now, sitting in the drawing room before dinner, watching them act so very much in love with their husbands, Emma wanted something like that.

Claxton, the family butler, entered the drawing room. He was ten minutes early if he was calling them in to dinner — and Claxton was never anything but precisely on time.

But he didn’t interrupt the rest of the gathering — instead, he quietly walked over to Emma. “My lady, a package arrived for you. I wouldn’t want to interrupt, but the messenger said it was urgent. I placed it in the gold salon.”

Emma didn’t know anyone in London, save for the people in this room and a handful of new acquaintances who wouldn’t send gifts. But she trusted Claxton. He’d been Lord Maidenstone’s butler for decades, traveling between Devonshire and London as needed. Claxton knew whether something needed attention or could be safely ignored.

“Thank you, Claxton,” she said, rising to her feet.

She slipped out of the room and went to the gold salon, where she shut the door behind herself. This was one of her favorite rooms — the walls were white, decorated with elaborate scrollwork gilded in gold leaf. The gold drapes were shut against the cold winter night, but dozens of candles flickered in the sconces. A fire crackled merrily in the fireplace, and the red and gold Aubusson carpet felt lush and heavy under her slippered feet. It was a small room, fit for laughter and conversation — or something more seductive.

Her mysterious gift sat on a parquet table in the center of the room. The box was wrapped in paper and tied with a velvet ribbon. A card was placed on top of it.

She walked over and lifted the card — and nearly shrieked when she saw the handwriting.

“Impossible,” she whispered, tracing her finger over her name.

Only her husband wrote like that, with a heavy hand and an odd little flourish under her name. She flipped the card over and saw the seal on the back — a seal that was unmistakably pressed with his signet ring.

He’d been dead for over a year. Why — how — was she getting a present from him now?

She slid her finger under the seal, trying not to crack it. She unfolded the paper carefully. It was dated in July of 1812 — a year and a half earlier, and less than two months before his death.

My dear Emma,

If you are reading this letter, you have been a very naughty girl. Not naughty in the way I’d hoped, though. Didn’t I tell you not to mourn me? You should be having adventures. You should be dancing until dawn. You should be breaking the heart of every young man who crosses your path.

You should not still be living with my granddaughters. You are as much a Briarley as any of us now. And Briarleys do not sit at home waiting for something to happen.

The fact that you have received this means that my friend has decided to intervene. Trust him. And trust me. Do not throw away any more of your life mourning me (much as I’m gratified). Have an adventure. Many adventures.

You gave me my last adventure. Let me give you your next one.

With love,

He never signed his letters “love.”

She set the letter aside, brushed the moisture away from the corners of her eyes, and opened the box. She found a gilded mask lying on a bed of black satin — with another note, written by someone else’s hand, tucked under the mask.

My lady,

I was instructed to provide you with an adventure. Come to the masquerade at Lord Westbrook’s tonight — I’ve secured an invitation for you. My coach will be waiting for you outside Briarley House at precisely ten p.m. I took the liberty of including a mask and a domino, but you may wear any costume you prefer. I’ll find you when you arrive.

Of course, if you don’t want an adventure, I still remain,

Yours, etc.,

She squinted. The signature was impossible to read.

She set the second note aside. When she unfurled the black satin, it became a domino — the kind of masquerade-appropriate cloak that would cover her completely.

Lord Westbrook’s masquerades were notorious, even now that he was married. She’d never been to one. She should never go to one. And anyway, this could be a trap. She didn’t know the name of her mysterious benefactor. She could end up in the Thames with a slit throat — and that was if she was lucky.

But then the clock struck the hour. She would be expected to go into dinner now. She would be expected to make delightful, witty conversation, and to pretend to be happy as the married couples in the room made private jokes that turned into annoying flirtations. She would have to join them after dinner, perhaps offering to play pianoforte so that they could dance.

She looked down at the mysterious note again.

She wasn’t a spinster. She wasn’t an innocent maiden. She wasn’t a wife.

She had more freedom than any woman her age usually had.

A slow smile spread across her face, unstopped even by the nerves fluttering in her belly.

And then she sent her regrets to the dining room and ran upstairs to change.

* * *

James Marsh, the new Viscount Sutton, was most certainly a cad. Possibly even immoral. He had invited a lady, whose husband had been a friend of his father’s, to a masquerade ball filled with people of ill repute.

And he had done it without telling said lady that the invitation was meant to come from his father, not from him.

But six months earlier, James’s father had died suddenly. James inherited two houses, several thousand acres of land, responsibility for a variety of family members and retainers…and a sealed letter from the dead Lord Maidenstone.

Lord Maidenstone had asked James’s father to give the note to Emma if she still seemed to be mourning a year after Maidenstone’s death. He’d even suggested that the old viscount might want to arrange a match between James and Emma — although from the tone of Maidenstone’s note, he hoped that Emma would be doing something far more scandalous than considering marriage.

In fact, one of the more memorable lines of his instructions was, “Whatever happens, do not let Emma waste herself on a vicar. Tell her she should become a courtesan before she does that.”

James had almost thrown the note away when he’d found it. The instructions weren’t meant for him. He didn’t want or need the responsibility of following through on them.

But the idea had intrigued him. And then he’d seen Lady Maidenstone at a ball, and suddenly he could think of nothing else.

He pulled out his watch. It was nearly eleven. If she had decided to come, she would arrive at any moment.

She surely wouldn’t come, though. What sane woman would take such an impromptu, illicit invitation from someone she didn’t know? He should have approached her in a more standard way, seeking an introduction through a common acquaintance. He should have brought her husband’s note to her with flowers, perhaps staying for tea for a quarter of an hour before moving on to his next house call. He should have done the proper thing if he wanted to have any chance with her — not that he should be thinking of chances. He should be thinking of his estate, and his family, and the grief he still felt for his father.

He closed his watch. She wouldn’t come. He should leave the party, return to his duties, and stop thinking of the widowed countess.

But then he heard a stir near the ballroom doors. He looked up — and thought his heart might stop.

Emma stood at the entrance. She wore his mask. It suited her just as well as he’d hoped it would. But she hadn’t worn his domino. It took him a moment to understand her costume — he was too stunned by how gorgeous she was, with her golden hair piled on top of her head and a white, Grecian-style gown clinging to every curve. But then he saw the gilded bow that she carried in her hand.

She was dressed as Diana — goddess of the hunt, goddess of moonlight.

And he was completely, utterly entranced.

Emma swept her gaze across the crowd. James came back to himself. He couldn’t keep watching her like some lovestruck fool; he had to go to her, since she didn’t know who he was.

He made it to her side before anyone else, although it was a near thing — there were others in the crowd who would want to know who she was, who would want to claim her as their own. He saw them hovering near her, eager for an introduction. The party was a mix of aristocrats, courtesans, widows, and adventurous married couples. It wouldn’t ruin her reputation to be seen here — as a widow, she had far more freedom than an unmarried lady would. But the milieu was certainly more scandalous than what she would be accustomed to at Almack’s.

And some of them wouldn’t wait for an introduction. Not that he could fault them. He hadn’t exactly been introduced either.

He bowed as soon as he reached her. “You look very lovely, my lady,” he said.

He immediately winced beneath his mask. He’d wanted to say something suave, flirtatious — and instead he’d complimented her as his father might have.

She tilted her head as though trying to see under his mask. “Have we been introduced?”

He detected wariness in her voice. He shoved his hand into his jacket, oddly nervous, and retrieved the flask he’d concealed there. Offering it to her, he said, “My apologies for the imposition, my lady. We haven’t been introduced. But Lord Maidenstone suggested that whisky might help with your adventure.”

She laughed. The tone was slightly bittersweet, but she didn’t sound sad — only amused, perhaps by a memory as much as by the present moment. “Lord Maidenstone had an overly optimistic view of whisky’s ability to solve problems.”

But she took the flask anyway, turning it in her hands and tracing her finger over James’s engraved initials. Then she surprised him thoroughly by opening the flask and taking a long sip.

She looked him dead in the eye when she was done. Beneath her mask, he sensed excitement, adventure, a hint of defiance — but also a trace of fear, as though she couldn’t quite believe she was there and wasn’t sure she should stay.

He wanted her to stay.

He took the flask back from her. Their fingers brushed against each other. She wore gloves, but he swore he felt something pass between them. Surely it was only lust — surely it wasn’t possible to fall in love with a woman whom he’d only seen across crowded ballrooms.

He put the flask back in his jacket. He’d had at least two brandies while waiting for her to arrive, and it wouldn’t do to go deeper into his cups. The excellent musicians were starting a waltz, and suddenly all he wanted to do was dance.

He offered Emma his arm. “Would you do me the honor of a waltz, my lady?”

“Of course,” she said. “On one condition.”

“Your wish is my command.”

He thought she arched an eyebrow under her mask. He hoped, entirely salaciously, that her command would lead to a kiss — or something else.

But then she grinned. “No commands just yet. But I would like for you to tell me your name.”

He laughed. “I’ve made a muck of this, haven’t I? James — er, Lord Sutton — at your service.”

* * *

Lord Sutton. The man she’d spied on across multiple ballrooms. The man Octavia had thought Emma would want, if she only met him.

It couldn’t really be him.

Emma didn’t believe in miracles. But if she did believe in miracles, she would think that her dead husband had just granted her one.

She would thank him for it later, perhaps by telling him this story the next time she visited his grave in Devonshire. But if he had really given her a miracle, he wouldn’t want her to waste it by thinking of him.

He would want her to seize the day, like a Briarley would.

He would want her to live.

So she took Lord Sutton’s arm. She stashed her gilded bow in a potted plant and let him lead her into a waltz — and then another. No one cared if they danced together more than once, and so they didn’t stop to share each other with others. She flirted with him until they were both breathless from laughter as much as they were from dancing. She couldn’t see his face, but his dark eyes gleamed with humor — and, if she wasn’t imagining it, something else.

Surely she was imagining it.

When they could dance no more, Sutton led her to a nearby alcove — one conveniently framed by drapes, which he flicked closed. Suddenly, it felt like they were all alone, even as the party continued beyond them.

“Shall I fetch you a glass of champagne, my lady?” he offered as she took a seat on the velvet couch that ran the length of the alcove’s wall.

“No,” she said. “But we could share your whisky.”

Under the edge of his mask, his lips quirked. “What problem do you think the whisky might solve?”

There was an invitation in his voice. God help her, she wanted to accept it.

She suddenly remembered, as though someone had shouted it at her, that she could accept it.

She’d never been so bold in all her life. But she looked up at him, waiting until the silence between them was so filled with anticipation that it almost felt like pain. And then, softly, but unmistakably, she said, “I thought it might solve the problem of why you haven’t kissed me yet.”

The gleam in his eyes flared, became something far more intense. He looked at her for another long moment, almost as long as she had paused — almost until she thought she’d made a mistake.

And then, quietly, hoarsely, he said, “We don’t need whisky for that.”

He dropped to the couch beside her. She turned toward him, trying to quell her sharp, sudden moment of doubt. But when his hand caressed her cheek, then dropped to her neck…when his other hand untied the ribbons holding her mask in place…there was no more time to doubt.

He sighed when her mask fell away. “You’re beautiful, my lady. Even more beautiful up close than you are across crowded ballrooms.”

She smiled her thanks, trying to play like she heard such compliments all the time — but inside, her heart was racing. He’d noticed her before, just as she’d noticed him.

Emboldened, she untied his mask.

The planes of his cheekbones and his angular jaw could have looked entirely arrogant. But she saw something safe in his eyes. Something protective.

Something that said he would give her an adventure, if she wanted it — but only if she wanted it.

She wanted it.

She tilted her head up. He knew immediately what she wanted. This time, he didn’t make her wait. He kissed her, so soft and slow at first that it felt like he was afraid of scaring her away.

But they couldn’t stay slow — not now that they were together, hidden away, doing something illicit and perfect all at once. Later, she wouldn’t know whether he was the one who deepened the kiss or whether she made the first move — all she would remember was that suddenly, inevitably, their mouths found each other. Devoured each other.

Loved each other, if she could call it that — but it was too soon to call it that.

Eventually, though, they pulled apart. Only by inches — neither of them seemed willing to leave each other’s company. She couldn’t stop herself from caressing his cheek — a gesture that somehow felt even more intimate than the kiss they’d just shared.

He smiled crookedly. “I was supposed to give you an adventure, but I think you’ll be the death of me.”

She smiled, just as crookedly. “I think we’ll survive it. Thank you for the invitation to this party, my lord. It was certainly more of an adventure than anything else I could have done tonight.”

A shadow passed over his face, so quickly she might have missed it. But then he said, slowly, “I should confess, my lady — the invitation was not mine to send.”

He said it as though he knew that she would leave for that — that he had made a colossal mistake.

Emma looked at him for a long moment. She saw guilt. She saw traces of lust — which probably mirrored her own, since she wanted far more than a kiss now that she’d tasted him.

She saw nothing that should make her afraid.

“Your father was my husband’s friend, if I remember correctly?” she said.

He nodded once. “He passed away this summer.”

She sighed her sympathy. “I was sorry to hear it when I read it in the papers, my lord. Did he have my husband’s letter?”

James nodded again. “But I should have introduced myself rather than sending your husband’s letter to you as though he had arranged it. It was very poorly done of me.”

Emma shrugged. “If you had met me at a ball, we never would have danced more than a single dance there. It would have taken ages to know each other properly.”

Then she touched his cheek again and said, “It would have taken ages for our first kiss. And possibly even longer for our second.”

He laughed. “If you’re still seeking adventure, I assume I’m forgiven?” he teased, his guilt gone.

“It seems wrong to hold a grudge on Christmas,” she said, kissing him again.

Neither of them could guess what would happen the next day, or the day after that. But for their first adventure together, another kiss was enough.

And another kiss, and another — along with a bit more whisky, several more waltzes, and a glass of champagne just before dawn. James finally escorted her home through a city that was just beginning to come to life, leaving her at her door with another kiss — and a promise to call on her properly during the day.

She should have been exhausted by then, but she practically floated up the steps to Briarley House. Claxton opened the door.

“Welcome home, my lady,” the butler said, as serene as if he always welcomed her home after a late night out alone.

She’d chafed at the idea of living at Briarley House the night before — the idea of this being home, when she was only there because she’d been invited to others. But now, with a taste for adventure and the promise of James’s next visit, Emma could think of nowhere other than London she would rather be.

She had Lord Maidenstone to thank for it. Regardless of what happened with James — whether he would become the love of her life or just the first of many flirtations — tonight’s gift had set her free.

And that was the best Christmas present she could ever hope to receive.

A thief on his final mission…

Maximus Vale is one of London’s top jewel thieves, and he’s protected his orphaned siblings by breaking every rule in the book. But his youngest brother is in mortal danger, and Max needs one final job — one lucrative enough to help his family leave England forever. He boldly claims to be the lost heir to the Briarley fortune, planning to steal everything he can carry and escape before anyone proves that he’s lying. Love is a distraction he can’t afford…

A debutante with a devastating secret…

Lucretia Briarley is prim, proper, perfect — everything everyone expects her to be. But her flawless reputation hides a sin she committed years ago — one that will destroy her and everyone she loves if it ever comes to light. Lucy will do anything to inherit Maidenstone Abbey and keep her secret safe — even making a risky offer to help Max claim the earldom in exchange for marrying her.

An arrangement that can destroy them in a heartbeat…

An attraction that starts as a game becomes something too powerful to ignore. But falling in love is a mistake neither can make. Their secrets and schemes set them on a collision course — one that their families may not survive. Is the growing love between a daring, clever thief and a prim, determined debutante enough to conquer everything and win the Heiress Games?

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  1. Thank you for the excerpts from Sarah Ramsey. I truly enjoyed them. Happy Holidays.
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

  2. Sounds full of intrigue. Loved the excerpt!