‘You shall go to the ball!’ …with these three Christmas Cinderella stories!
In Sophia James’s Christmas With The Earl, usually composed Ariana burns up like a Christmas candle at the infamous Earl of Norwich’s touch!
Mills & Boon Historical — Your romantic escape to the past.
London, 8th December 1814
A stranger dressed completely in black blocked her in the doorway, his height dimming the light of a crisp early December morning.
‘Please let me pass, sir. I do not know you.’
Her tone was sharp, the shock of his closeness telling, but the man before her only smiled.
‘If you could acknowledge me but for a moment, madam, I would be most grateful.’
Such entreaty held the sort of desperation that Ariana Dalrymple could not fail to hear and she observed him more closely. He had eyes the colour of wet autumn leaves and his face was one of a fighter. There was a scratch that went from one eye to his ear, and a bruise was swelling fast on his cheek.
‘If someone dangerous is after you…’
‘They are not.’
‘Or if you have just had a fight…’
A group of women were passing them now, and he tipped his head towards her as though to listen more carefully to what she was saying. The thick wool of his cloak effectively blocked all else out. His hat was pulled firmly down and his collar was up, and the small doorway in which they stood sheltered them from any recognition.
‘Are you hiding from those women?’
She suddenly knew that he was, and he had the good grace at least to appear remorseful. For a second Ariana saw in him something she liked a lot.
‘Did she hit you?’ Horror marked her words and he laughed outright.
‘Hardly. I fell off a horse.’
‘Where?’ She looked around for a riderless steed, expecting one to charge through the throng on the crowded city street.
‘Last night. At Stevenage.’
‘The Duke of Horsham’s estate?’
‘Yes. You know him?’
‘Vaguely. He seems a stern and sad man. Rumour has it there is an estranged son who has been a trial, so perhaps that is what ails him.’
She glanced at the group of fashionable women who had passed by half a minute ago and were now turning a corner, all chattering together like a clutch of noisy quail.
‘I think you are safe, sir. Your huntswomen have gone. If you leave quickly and in that direction I imagine you would stay unnoticed.’
‘Thank you, Miss…?’
‘Mrs Ariana Dalrymple. But I am more usually called Aria.’
‘Like a song in an opera?’ There was a tone in his voice that was hesitant.
‘I am North.’
‘As in a direction?’
He began to laugh. ‘No one has ever asked me that before. It’s Northwell in truth—Christopher Anthony Stephen Northwell.’
Ariana swallowed back her horror. ‘The Duke’s recently returned and wayward son? The dissolute and unrepentant Earl of Norwich?’
‘I am afraid so.’
She stopped herself from apologising as she sought to remember the details. ‘The stories about you are most specific, my lord. It seems you burnt the family mansion to the ground and left the country soon afterwards. Your father and mother only just escaped from being burnt to a crisp, if I recall it rightly.’
‘Well, that was my mother’s version of things.’
‘There is another one?’
‘Isn’t there always?’
She swallowed. This conversation was one of the oddest she had ever partaken in. ‘I am not certain. Perhaps you should tell me.’
‘I’d rather not. My penance is over and done with and the Christmas season holds hope.’
‘Personally I find that word overused.’
The smile hardened in his eyes and a new and far more dangerous lord stood where the charming womaniser had been before. Not an easy man at all. Her heart began to trip a little faster.
‘Failing to take responsibility for one’s faults is hardly something to fun about, my lord?’
‘Hasty judgement is not a flattering trait either, Mrs Dalrymple.’
‘So everyone is wrong and you are right? I had expected more of you.’
‘Why had you expected more of me?’
He had her there, and it was seldom people ever turned the tables on her logic.
‘I’d hoped you might be kinder.’ There—it was said, and the frills of good manners dispensed with. Because she had wished it so with all her heart.
Once he might have been kinder—once he might have taken her hand and kissed her fingers whilst apologising. She was, after all, extraordinarily beautiful, this woman before him, with her dark hair and blue eyes and the sort of face that would never go unremarked upon.
But he was tired, and the afternoon was nearly spent, and all he wanted to do was to go home to the rented rooms in St James’s and find a bottle of his very best brandy and drink the lot. A welcome oblivion as he sought solace.
It was becoming more difficult by the day, this façade of easy-going, casual happy-go-luckiness, and if he had erred in his judgement a moment ago, when she had mentioned reconciliation, then it was his own fault entirely. He didn’t quite feel comfortable lying to her and it showed.
That admission had him stepping back. ‘If there is any way that I can repay your good grace in humouring my small and recent difficulty I should be happy to hear of it.’
He watched her take a breath, saw conflict in her glance.
‘Take me to the Shawler ball this Friday as your partner. I do not require more than one dance, a quarter of an hour at most of your time, and then you can be on your way. I shall not hold you to a moment longer.’
‘You have a suitor you wish to…dangle? A lover who requires a push?’
‘You have heard of me, then?’
‘Who has not, Mrs Dalrymple? You are as infamous as I am.’
‘There is no lover, my lord. I merely need to be received.’
‘You were not invited, then?’
‘I am afraid some hosts still cling to the old hopes of cloying submissive womanhood.’
‘Those who marry well and never stray from the path of righteousness?’
‘Not as far as I have, at least—and certainly not those who fail to apologise for doing so.’
‘A questionable strategy in a town where manners are so strictly observed?’
‘Well, sometimes even I am amazed at the things that I am supposed to have done.’
‘The Hartley ball was one such faux pas, I suppose? I remember hearing of it years ago, just before I left England. The Simmons sisters accompanied you to the event and one of them lost her innocence.’
Blue eyes darkened at that, as if a sore spot had been rubbed.
‘When others are hurt I generally feel some sense of remorse. But I am far wiser now, and much less inclined to extremes. Perhaps you are the same, my lord, after your extended jaunt in the Americas?’
‘Perhaps. Who is it who looks out for you when you need help with your reputation? I know you to be a widow, and it is also said that you have lost both your parents.’
‘Lady Sarah Hervey, Viscountess Ludlow, lives with me.’
North had heard of the woman and whistled, the sound piercing in the quiet of the day.
‘A difficult protector—and one who has her own detractors.’
Again darkness surfaced, though this time it was tinged with a certain anger.
‘Friday, then, at half past nine. At my townhouse on Portman Square. I will see you there.’
At that she turned, gesturing to her maid behind to follow, the stellar cut of her unusual cloak shimmering in the thin winter sun. A jaunty hat sat on the top of her head. A shapely bottom was outlined in the breeze and her dark hair lifted in the wind. The scent of some flower lingered where she had stood, and he tipped his head to try and identify it.
Lily of the valley. A beautiful but poisonous plant.
It suited her.
‘Damn. Damn. Damn.’
She said this beneath her breath as she walked, each step punctuated by the word. She had known one day that she would meet a man who might make her heart beat faster, but why did it have to be this one?