Read A Christmas Gambol Online

Authors: Joan Smith

Tags: #Regency Romance

A Christmas Gambol

BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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Joan Smith


Chapter One


“The waves crashed against the rocks; the gray clouds parted and a single ray of sunlight shone down upon the young couple. Eugenie was unaware of Mother Nature’s blessing on the match as she walked hand in hand with Ravencroft into the future.”

Cicely Caldwell did not close the novel gently. She slammed it shut and was hard-pressed not to throw it across the room.
Chaos Is Come Again,
it was called, and it had been especially recommended to her by the clerk at the circulating library. It was the title on the reading public’s lips this season, he had assured her. He had set it aside especially for Cicely, as she was his most avid customer.

What made Mr. Meecham think she would enjoy a stupid gothic novel with a heroine bearing the unlikely name of Eugenie Beaureport, who possessed crystal-clear eyes of an unlikely violet color? How did the hero, Lord Ravencroft, even know they were violet? They were always full of tears, to say nothing of those mile-long eyelashes that sounded like a pair of canopies. The girl was nothing but a watering pot. And the totally incredible plot! As if falling among Gypsies and having her sable tresses shorn was not bad enough, she’d had to pawn her mama’s wedding ring—the last keepsake of her dear mother—to bribe a villain to deliver a letter to Ravencroft.

Did Eugenie not know she should not trust a man with greasy locks and a shifty eye? Naturally the cur pocketed the money and tossed the letter aside—where, fortunately, Eugenie discovered it in the gutter, all sodden with rain, two days later.

If Eugenie had had her wits about her, she would have kept an eye on the sky, for ominous gray clouds invariably foretold her mishaps. Cicely grudgingly admitted there was a certain amount of imagination in the plot—but very little credibility. It seemed the reading public was not interested in dull reality. They wanted violet eyes and ominous clouds and Gypsies.

With a deep sigh she went to the study and withdrew from the drawer a bulky manuscript, dogeared from its peregrinations. It had been turned down by three publishers. The most recent refuser, Thomas Egerton, had suggested that if Cicely could make her heroine more sympathetic, he would publish the book “on commission.” A query informed her that this meant she would pay all the publishing costs and receive part of the profits, less Mr. Egerton’s large commission. Cicely dearly wanted to see her novel,
in print, but she was not prepared to pay two hundred pounds to satisfy her vanity. That was the sum Mr. Egerton had mentioned in his letter.

She sat, glumly perusing the familiar pages. Perhaps if she gave Georgiana turquoise eyes, or gold or silver eyes, she would strike Egerton as more “sympathetic.” It would mean only a few changes in the manuscript. Unlike the anonymous lady who had penned
Cicely had not felt it necessary to remind her readers of the eye color in every chapter. She toyed with the notion of making more use of nature, throwing in a howling wind or a slashing rain to presage imminent danger. Yet a howling wind did not seem appropriate when the danger was so mundane as burning the marmalade, or a pig getting loose in the vegetable garden. Such were Georgiana’s trials, for she was drawn from life, not the realm of fantasy.

Cicely’s inspiration was not the anonymous lady who had penned
Chaos Is Come Again,
but the equally anonymous lady who had written
Pride and Prejudice.
Egerton had published the latter, which was why Cicely had sent
to him. Perhaps the anonymous author had worked “on commission.” If only Cicely had two hundred pounds to risk, for it certainly was a risky venture. Mr. Egerton had made no bones about that. He wrote of hoping to recoup the investment, not making a profit.

Cicely’s annual income was two hundred and fifty pounds, the interest on her dowry of five thousand. At her present rate of saving, it would take her five years to save two hundred pounds. Even a provincial lady, with plain hazel eyes in lieu of violet, and with chestnut hair instead of sable required an occasional new gown or bonnet.

Papa would never allow her to eat into her capital. Indeed she would not care to do it. Five thousand was little enough enticement to the gentlemen as it was. Her friend, Meg St. Clair, a beautiful, noble lady, had had to go to London to nab a
An untitled lady like herself, with no particular claim to beauty, needed all the dowry she could scrape together to secure a good match.

Elmdale, her papa’s estate in Kent, was isolated from town. Papa had no use for company. He was happy with his books, his church work, and his work of raising hops. Anne, his elder daughter, had become his housekeeper when Mrs. Caldwell had died a decade earlier. To Cicely, only ten years old at the time, her mama was but a memory.

On their weekly trip to the village, Cicely and Anne always stopped at the circulating library. Reading helped to pass the long evenings. When Cicely had read most of the novels there, she began writing one of her own. It had been a great solace during the quiet winter. In spring she had made a fair copy in her best copperplate hand; in the dead of summer she had begun sending it off to publishers. Now it was back, it was late November, and she was impatient for her work to reach the public.

She gazed out the library window to the park, where an autumnal wind tossed the stark branches of stately elms, sending down an occasional withered leaf. Soon there would be snow, and Christmas, then spring again. The uninterrupted rhythm of her life caused her a moment’s ennui, until she remembered that she had those revisions to make to
She strode purposefully to the table and sharpened her quill.

* * * *

In London, Lord Montaigne pounced up the steps of a handsome mansion on Berkeley Square, gave one tap of the knocker, and entered his sister’s house before the butler reached the door.

“It’s only me, Coddle,” he said. “Is Lady Fairly home?”

“In the saloon, milord. She is alone. I shall—”

“Don’t bother. I’ll announce myself,” Montaigne said. He stripped off his York tan gloves, his greatcoat and curled beaver, and handed the lot to Coddle before sauntering toward the saloon.

From the vaulted archway, he saw his sister sliding a marble-covered novel under a pillow and smiled. Meg was seldom without a gothic novel at hand, on those rare occasions when she was alone. It was more usual to find her saloon littered with fashionable fribbles. Lady Margaret St. Clair had caused quite a stir when she had made her curtsey at St. James’s two years before. Her Titian curls and sparkling brown eyes had set many a noble heart aflutter. In the twinkling of a bedpost she had landed an earl, married him, and set up as one of Society’s leading hostesses.

“No, don’t put it away,” Montaigne said, sauntering forward. “It happens I want to talk to you about books.”

“Oh, Monty. It’s you.” She smiled, holding out her dainty white hand. “I simply adored
Chaos Is Come Again.
I cannot believe you really wrote it. It is so unlike you.” She patted the sofa beside her, urging him to sit down.

Montaigne lowered his tall, elegant body onto the striped sofa, crossed one leg over the other, and sighed. “For my sins,” he said. “You have not told anyone my dark secret? It would quite knock the feathers off my dignity.”

“Of course not, ninnyhammer. While it is an excellent novel of its sort, I am clever enough to realize it would not do for the Marquess of Montaigne to have penned it. Your budding career in Parliament would be over in a day. However did you come to do such a thing? I daresay it was Debora’s marriage to the duke that set you off?”

“That, and my busted ankle,” he said, his hand going instinctively to rub it, as it still caused pain if he was on his feet for long, and he had been speaking in the House for close to an hour that afternoon.

“I daresay it was the laudanum that set you off,” Lady Fairly said. “There is a rumor running around town that Coleridge is writing a new poem that was incited by laudanum, but he woke up before it was finished. He has been trying forever to finish it, but cannot, so he is going to publish a part of a poem. Is that not droll? Something about Genghis Khan.”

“Kubia Khan, actually,” Montaigne amended. “Unlike Coleridge, my story came to me complete, only replacing the sybaritic luxuries of Xanadu with hell. Scribbling it down helped to pass the month I was laid up at the abbey after I took that tumble from Caesar. Being a cruel beast, I rather enjoyed watching Debora struggle through the mire of trials and tribulations I loaded on the poor girl. The writing had a therapeutic effect. It cured me of my boyish crush.”

“I quite understand,” Lady Fairly said. “When I am angry with Fairly, I imagine him losing all his money and having to beg in the street for a crust of bread. But then I realize that if he lost his blunt, he could not buy me such lovely gowns and jewels and things.”

“That, of course, is a husband’s prime function,” Montaigne said blandly.

“Of course. So I let him recoup his fortune at the gaming table. What I cannot understand is why Debora chose the duke over you, for it is understating the matter to say he is plain, while you are shockingly handsome. If Morland’s eyes bulged any farther they would leave his head entirely.”

She smiled at her elder brother, whom she mentally conceded was almost as handsome as Fairly, and of course a good deal sharper. Monty was cut in the mold of a Corsair, tall and broad-shouldered, with black hair and a wicked dark eye. Were it not for his lips, which were more inclined to lift in laughter than to curl in a cynical sneer, he might be a pattern card for Byron’s Corsair.

“I console myself that she chose a duke over a marquess—or her mama did,” he replied.

As Lady Fairly poured two glasses of sherry and handed her brother one, she concluded that he had indeed recovered from his brief infatuation. No aura of heartbreak lingered on his healthy visage. No shadow marred his sparkling eyes.

“It is called a love match, actually—or was. The flames are fast dying to embers,” Lady Fairly remarked. When Montaigne expressed no interest in this, she said, “What is it you want to discuss? You mentioned books. You know I would never reveal your secret about the book, dear Monty. I think it noble of you to give all the money to charity, when you could have bought dozens of horses or jackets or diamond necklaces for your sister. Even Fairly does not know who wrote
and I tell him everything—except how much money I owe and who my new flirts are. He is shockingly jealous.” She smiled.

“My visit has to do with
he said, studying his sister and wondering if she would do. Dearly as he loved Meg, he realized her shortcomings. “The thing is, John Murray insists on meeting the authoress. When I submitted the novel to him, I implied the anonymous lady was a cousin. I acted as her agent and handled the contract and monies. Now that it is a hit, he wishes to discuss her next book with her and to introduce her to the ton.”

Lady Fairly gazed at Montaigne. “You want me to arrange for a wig and gown and so on? You will make a shockingly big lady, but I daresay if Murray spots the resemblance to yourself, he will think it is because you are your cousin.”

“It was not a masquerade that I had in mind,” he said firmly.

“Oh.” She looked a question at him.

“No, what I was wondering was if you would mind saying you had written the thing.”

“Me!” She clapped her hands in joy. “I should adore to! What a lark! But Murray knows I am not your cousin, Monty. He would think it excessively odd that I had ever made a secret of it in the first place, if I had written it.” Her expression clouded to doubt. “Besides, everyone knows I can scarcely write an invitation without Fairly helping me. English is so horrid—all those letters that don’t seem to make any sound when spoken. And when could I have had time to write it? I am trotting day and night.”

Montaigne reluctantly accepted that no one would believe Meg capable of stringing two literate sentences together. “Can you suggest some discreet lady who would not object to pretending she had written the book?”

“Oh, Lord, Monty, none of my friends could keep a secret like that. They would be crowing from the rooftops.” She sipped on her sherry for a moment, then continued. “What you should do is bring in some lady from the provinces. Let Murray meet her. Then pay her off and hustle her back out of town.”

Monty listened with interest. Meg was as flighty as a bird, but she was not entirely witless. “That is not a bad notion,” he said. “Now, who? Cousin Edith, perhaps ...”

“Foolish boy. Once you let
get her two feet in your house, you would have a pensioner for life. And the same of Cousin Elinor.”

“I had thought of hiring an actress, but then she might be recognized.”

“Or might hold you to ransom, threatening to tell the truth if you did not pay her shockingly large sums of money. To say nothing of the accent. They never get it quite right. No, what we want is some mousy creature from the country, someone we can trust implicitly. . . . But of course! Sissie Caldwell! She is my oldest and dearest friend—although I have not seen her since making my wedding. But we promised to keep in touch with letters.”

BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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