Read A Seduction at Christmas Online

Authors: Cathy Maxwell

A Seduction at Christmas

BOOK: A Seduction at Christmas
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Cathy Maxwell
A Seduction at Christmas

This book is dedicated to Powhatan, Virginia—

to my friends and neighbors,
to the Y and the yoga studio
and the yarn shop and the restaurants
and Oakdale Stables and St. John Neumann’s
and all the churches and
to everyone who makes this a fulfilling place to live.

I’d also like to thank Sara Saavedra
for her help with the translations
and hope she will be available
when Andres has his own story.

Gracias!

As always, I am wealthy in my friends.

Contents

The Prophecy
Whose hand guides our destiny?

Part I
Chance

Chapter One

Fiona Lachlan draped her shawl over her head as she…

Chapter Two

The tart’s cool response to his comment caught Nick’s attention.

Chapter Three

Fiona stepped in front the duke. “Who are you? Did…

Chapter Four

Fiona stood indecisively in the hallway.

Chapter Five

Nick didn’t want to wake. He didn’t want to open…

Chapter Six

Nick came up off the bed and crouched, ready to…

Chapter Seven

Holburn had jumped carrying all her possessions in the world.

Chapter Eight

“Belkins is dead?” Holburn repeated.

Chapter Nine

Nothing attracted company like tragedy.

Part II
Courage

Chapter Ten

Fiona woke to the sensation of Tad’s cold black nose…

Chapter Eleven

There, Nick had confessed all. He’d played all his cards…

Chapter Twelve

Holburn did have a good singing voice. It was a…

Chapter Thirteen

Nick faced his enemy. The years had not been kind…

Chapter Fourteen

From the moment Fiona had met Holburn, even when she’d…

Chapter Fifteen

Everyone in the room, even the servants, turned with stunned…

Chapter Sixteen

Nick felt the bullet go through his arm and out…

Chapter Seventeen

Nick sat in a leather upholstered chair by the fire.

The Prophecy

Whose hand guides our destiny?

1800

I
t was hell being the family black sheep.

Usually, Dominic Lynsted—Nick to his friends—weathered the role well, even took pride in it. He enjoyed defying his overbearing uncles by pushing every boundary. After all, what good was there to being a young duke if you didn’t have some fun with the title? At one and twenty, Nick had held the title Duke of Holburn for eleven years, but only since he’d recently wrestled control of his estates from his uncles’ guardianship was he really beginning to enjoy himself.

However last night had been one of inspired debauchery.

Memories, snippets really, made their appearance
between the hammerlike pounding of his brain against his skull. He recalled beautiful, sloe-eyed women, music, and dancing. Nick couldn’t remember ever experiencing such exuberance. Of course, now as he came to wakefulness, his eyelids felt glued to his cheeks, his body lacked the strength and the will to move even a hair’s distance, and his mouth tasted of soured wine and the licorice-flavored liquor the locals made. The good news was he
could
feel his legs. At one point during the night before, he hadn’t been certain he would walk again. He’d taken a step and fallen. He’d hit the ground hard.

Nick remembered being picked up and shouting that from hence forward he wanted to be carried by lovely Greek women everywhere he went, even into Parliament. In response, he had been carried, but Nick couldn’t remember by whom or why—nor did he care.

First, he had to survive the anguish of overindulgence. Later, he would atone for his sins. He’d apologize to the deadly dull Lord Livermore, his chaperone on his Grand Tour, for bailing out on any of the previous evenings’ plans—wait!

Had it been yesterday when he’d met Andres? Or two, three, four days ago?

Nick could no longer remember.

Well, there was naught he could do now but
return to Lord Livermore and face his uncles’ wrath when he returned to England. He knew they’d hear of this and any other transgressions since his cousin Richard was also making the Grand Tour of Greece and Italy with him. Richard would tell. He always did.

One thing was certain: his new-found friend Andres Ramigio Peiró, Barón de Vasconia, knew how to enjoy Greece.

He wondered if he could convince the silver-eyed Spaniard to accompany them to Rome?

“But I’m not going to drink anymore, I’m not going to drink anymore, I’m not going to drink anymore,” Nick vowed in a litany under his breath, until he realized he wasn’t wearing his boots.

Nick opened one eye to stare at his stockinged feet and was almost blinded by the Greek sun.

And the reason his bed was so hard was because he wasn’t in it. He was lying on rock-solid earth, surrounded by ruins.

“What the devil—?”

He had no idea where he was. And it was quiet. Too quiet.

“Andres?” His voice was little more than a frog’s croak.

There was no answer other than the annoying buzz of insects in the distance.

His head feeling as heavy as an anvil, Nick
gingerly came to his feet. That’s when he noticed the plump sheepskin flask leaning up against the stone wall where he would see it. Greedily, he stumbled toward it, uncorked it, and drank. The water was already warm from the sun’s heat but his swollen tongue needed the liquid.

Nick drank until the flask was dry. Some of the water had spilled out of his mouth and onto his shirt. His neck cloth and jacket were long gone. He didn’t remember taking them off. He wiped his mouth on his shirt and took stock of his surroundings.

He’d seen enough ruins to know he stood on the foundation of what had once been a temple built into the side of a mountain. No, there wasn’t one temple here, but dozens. The ruins seemed to go on forever. At one time, this had been a powerful, sacred site—suddenly he knew where he was. Delphi.

At one point, he and Andres had talked about Delphi, the place the ancients had believed to be the center of the earth. Nick remembered Andres telling him at the taverna that they weren’t far from that once-holy site where the High Priestess of the Oracle prophesized a man’s fate. It had been one of the few sober moments between them. Nick had said he wished he knew his destiny and
Andres had laughingly promised to bring him to Delphi.

Well, here he was.

Nick turned in place. A road, a ribbon of dull gold amongst the dusty green of the trees, snaked down the mountainside into a valley but no one traveled it. The mountain’s craggy peak rose above him. The path around the ruins of numerous small temples was blocked by fallen stone walls and other debris that had gathered over the decades. The sky was a bold, clear, blue, the sun merciless. The buzzing became pronounced. Locusts.

He wondered where his boots were…and the horses…and Andres—

A sense of foreboding settled over him. His money purse had been in the inside pocket of his missing coat. The idea that Andres would rob him didn’t make sense. Nick had freely paid their expenses and there was really very little coin left in the purse, not that there had been that much to begin with. His late father’s expensive tastes and gambling losses had emptied most of what was in the Holburn coffers. The cost of maintaining numerous estates was running through the rest. His uncles were financing his Grand Tour.

No, there was only one thing Nick owned that
was valuable—his signet ring, the gold emblem of the House of Holburn. The ring had been a gift from Charles II and priceless in the eyes of the family.

His uncles had coveted the ring even more than they did the title. They made it clear they thought Nick unworthy to be duke. They were both self-made men who hadn’t stood in the shadow of their ducal brother but had earned titles of their own, Lord Maven and Lord Brandt.

Meanwhile, Nick’s father had scandalized society by marrying his mistress, an opera dancer. As far as the uncles were concerned, the marriage had tainted the bloodlines. They’d told Nick as much a month ago when he’d successfully demanded the ring along with control of his estates. They had wanted him to continue to let them control his affairs, but Nick had turned one and twenty and the law was on his side.

They’d given him what he’d wanted, but not before predicting he was irresponsible enough to lose the ring—and now he’d fulfilled that prediction.

Nick stared at his bare hand in disbelief. Andres had been his friend. He’d
trusted
him—

A sound of pebbles tumbling over the rocks coming from the far side of a huge block of marble caught Nick’s attention. “There you are,” he said,
relief overcoming his anger as he moved through the ruins toward the sound. “You are not going to believe what I thought you’d done—”

His voice broke off at the sight of a crone squatting in the shade of the marble. She was dressed in dusty, brown muslin, her bare feet as dark and leathery as his boots. She didn’t look at him but rocked back and forth, humming as she sifted through the stones around her, letting them drop through her fingers into a basket beside her.

Nick wasn’t superstitious but there was something not right here. It was too odd, too eerie. He took a step back, aware of how ancient and desolate a place this was.

The singing of the locusts was louder now and he realized with a start that the sound was coming from her. Her voice grew until it echoed off every rock and every tree on the mountain above them.

He whirled on the woman, his patience gone with the loss of his ring.
“Who are you?”

She didn’t answer. Didn’t even turn toward him but continued sifting through the dirt.

His head was clear now, but the air around him had grown thick, sulfurous. Breathing became difficult…and was it his imagination or was the sky darkening? It was still the same blue but a veil of darkness seemed to rise all around him.

Nick tugged at the neck of his shirt, craving fresh air. The locust chorus filled his head and he knew something evil lurked here. Something sane men avoided—

The crone raised her veiled head and looked right at him.
She was deformed
. Her eyes were sightless, milky membranes. Her nose was nothing more than holes in her face and her mouth full of black, rotting stubs of teeth. The thin, gray braids around her face began curling like snakes.

Nick staggered back in horror. He lost his footing and was sent head over heels down a hill to land on the marble foundation of another temple below. He hit the ground hard. For a second, the air was knocked out of his chest, paralyzing him.

The crone came to stand where he’d just fallen. She spread her skinny arms and her body began to lengthen and grow stronger. Her muslin robes turned to snowy silk. Her skin became smooth and took on the glow of youth. The braids changed from snakes to curls of the rich, glowing red of the setting sun.

Gasping for breath, Nick wanted to believe his mind played tricks—and yet the ground felt firm and real beneath him, the marble warm from the sun.

Her face became the sky. Rosy lips formed around teeth that were suddenly white as pearls.
Her veil floated in the air around her, its shadow shielding those terrible eyes.

“What do you ask of me?”

He didn’t know if he
heard
her as much as sensed her speak. She spoke a language he did not know and yet he understood.

If this was madness, so be it. Slowly, Nick came to his feet. The apparition didn’t fade but hovered before him.

What did he want?

There was only one thing. “I want my ring.”

A light seemed to go through her, causing the vision to waver, and then she said, “Beware innocence.”

Nick waited. There had to be more. What sort of a prophecy was that?

The vision’s lips curved into a secret smile. She was done.

But
he
wasn’t.
“What the devil do you mean?”

Her head bowed. She was fading.

“I want
more,
” he shouted. Didn’t she understand? He had to have his ring back. It was his heritage, his right. Worse, his uncles would never forgive him. He’d never be a man in their eyes—and Nick realized he wanted that. As much as he pretended not to care, as often as he flouted their authority—they were the only father he had.

He would never be forgiven if he lost it.

He’d never forgive himself.

The vision didn’t care. She vanished, fading into the relentlessly blue Mediterranean sky. The air was filled with silence.

Nick felt as if all energy had been drained from him, and then he heard a sound. He turned and found the crone once again sitting in the shade of the ruins, her fingers running through the stones in her basket.

Nick took a step up the hill toward her, and then caught himself. She was no help to him. What had been was no longer.

And then he realized it didn’t matter.

Beware innocence.

What sort of prophecy was that?
He
could have predicted the same thing. Nothing good came of trusting. Hadn’t Andres brutally borne that point home?

Sooner or later, every man had to stand on his own.

But first, he had to find Andres before the bastard sold his ring. He would start in Athens with a visit to the jewelers. If Andres was wise, he would have the ring melted down. Nick planned on reaching him before he could do such a thing.

He turned his back on the crone and began walking down the steep, stony path. It was hours
before he met a traveler on the road and two days before he arrived in Athens.

Ignoring Livermore and his cousin Richard’s questions, Nick started going through every haunt he and Andres had visited before the night in Delphi. But he didn’t find the Spaniard or his ring. Not even a search along the docks turned up anyone who had even seen Andres leave Greece.

In the end, Nick had no choice but to return to London and confess he’d lost the ring.

Of course, Richard had already told the uncles of Nick’s disappearance and Livermore had added his own complaints about Nick’s “rakehell behavior.”

For once, his uncles did not openly chastise him. No, their disapproval would run through the months and years ahead. But their opinion couldn’t be lower than the one he held of himself.

A search for Andres had to be set aside as the business affairs of the Holburn estates took over. Nick had demanded control of his affairs from his uncles and now was to learn that the expenses of a duke with a large, extensive family were many…and his uncles’ stewardship during the years of his minority had not served him well. For all their arrogant pride, they hadn’t paid close attention to their guardianship of his affairs as they should
have. Nick was closer to ruin than he could have ever imagined.

In desperation, he turned to gaming tables and that’s when something strange began to happen.

Like his father before him, Nick’s luck at cards had never been good. He’d wasted more money than he cared to admit on chance. However, since his fateful meeting with the Oracle, his luck seemed to have changed. It was as if he could
not
lose. That didn’t mean he didn’t suffer losses. The cards sometimes did turn on him. His horse sometimes did come in last. But overall, through the course of an evening, Nick always ended up ahead. Sometimes by great sums, sometimes by small ones.

Fearing he was being fanciful, he tested his theory by trying to lose. He couldn’t. By the end of the night, fortune always came his way.

He attempted to transfer this strange good fortune to other ventures—cargo ships or investing in the funds or planting new crops. Those ventures always failed and it wasn’t only Nick who suffered but also those investors who had joined him in the scheme.

Guilt drove Nick to recoup his losses. He began playing for higher stakes. Gambling lost all amusement. It became survival. His companions became the habitués of the gaming world, the roués, rakes,
and scoundrels. His dueling skills with both pistols and swords became both legendary and necessary. In time, Nick’s soul became as hardened as theirs…or so he feared.

Beware innocence.

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