A Duke for Christmas
Book 2 in the The Cotswolds Christmas Series
In Regency-era London, Lady Penelope Wentworth’s brief, arranged marriage ended in widowhood and she has no interest in being wed again. The Duke of Sheffield, Grayson St. Cyr, is a powerful aristocrat who has never met a woman who could tempt him into marriage. Given neither Penelope nor the Duke are interested in matrimony, no one would ever suspect them of matchmaking. Yet matchmakers they become, due to their sincere affection for the Duke’s heir and Penelope’s cousin. To facilitate the younger couple’s courtship, Penelope agrees to chaperone her cousin and spend Christmas at Sheffield Park, the Duke’s country home. During the month’s holiday at the large family gathering, there will be opportunities for the young couple to mingle and quietly deepen their acquaintance.
It never occurred to Penelope or Gray that Cupid might aim his arrows at them. Fate, and Cupid, however, clearly have plans. Given Gray’s extended family’s approval of what they mistakenly believe is his subtle courtship of Penelope and Cupid’s fixed intent, will Gray and Penelope end the holidays with an engagement by Christmas? How quickly can two people who don’t believe in marriage change their minds and fall in love? Perhaps Gray and Penelope truly are the best matchmakers in England, even when one of the matches was definitely not planned.
Introducing the first collaboration between historical romance author Stefanie Sloane and her new writing partner, Emma Sloane! Any book with Emma’s name on it means two Regency authors talked over coffee (wine), came up with an irresistible idea, and worked together to bring a new novel to life, just for you. It’s everything you love about Stefanie Sloane’s books, now with added Emma!
A Duke for Christmas
Book 2 in the The Cotswolds Christmas Series
A Duke for Christmas
November 1814, Gloucestershire, Southwest England
Snow blanketed the rolling Cotswold hills and the lawns and gardens of Sheffield Park. The u-shaped wings of the great house were dusted with white along the stone ledges of the deep window embrasures. High above, frost glittered on the slate roof, highlighting the angles of the dark tiles.
Within the thick walls of his ancestral home, Grayson St. Cyr, Duke of Sheffield, Marquis of Lismore, Earl of Carrick, looked away from the wintry view outside the window. Here in the library where he worked, fires leapt in the hearths and warmed the bookshelf-lined room. Moments later, his attention was once again fully focused on reading and replying to the neat piles of the day’s correspondence, spread across the polished surface of his desk. Elsewhere in the house, servants bustled about their work, but here all was quiet, the silence broken only by the rhythmic tick-tock of the tall case clock to the left of the doorway.
There was much to be said for the peace of one’s country estate, Gray reflected, well away from the noise and chaos of the London streets outside his Mayfair home.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than a tap sounded at the door.
“Come,” he called absently, his attention focused on the agent’s report regarding his Kent holdings.
The solid oak panels glided silently inward and his butler stepped over the threshold.
“Yes, Maxson, what is it?”
“You have a visitor, Your Grace.”
Gray lifted a brow, casting a quick glance at the snowy landscape outside the window. “What imbecile pays a call on a day like this?”
“That’s no way to greet family, Gray.” The deep drawl held wry amusement. A tall male dressed in a snug blue coat, dull gold waistcoat, white shirt, and snowy neckcloth stepped around Maxson and into the room. The black riding boots below his buckskin breeches didn’t gleam with their usual luster. In fact, his entire quietly elegant attire and tousled hair appeared a bit the worse for having been subjected to the elements.
“Val, what are you doing here?” Gray stood and rounded the desk, a welcoming grin curving his lips.
The two met mid-room, exchanging a warm handclasp. Gray hadn’t seen his cousin for a good month and he’d missed his company.
“What brings you to the Cotswolds?” Gray went on, waving Val to the leather wingback chair facing his desk.
He resumed his own seat, eyeing his cousin. He and Val were nearly the same height, their hair equally raven black, their eyes variations of the St. Cyr emerald green. They favored each other so much that they were often mistaken for brothers. But today his cousin’s face was marked by weariness from what Gray surmised had been a long ride on cold, punishing roads.
As he studied Val’s features, he noted a faint shiver move the broad shoulders beneath the blue coat. “Maxson, bring us something hot to drink. You look chilled to the bone, Val,” he added as the butler left the room. “How far have you traveled today?”
“I passed the night with friends outside Bath and set out early this morning.”
“Damnation, Val,” Gray said with feeling. “It’s barely midday. That’s a long, hard ride in this weather.”
Valentine St. Cyr flicked a glance at the window. “Too damn much snow for early November. I can’t remember a winter this cold. Some say the Thames will freeze this year.”
Gray snorted in disbelief. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
They continued to discuss the impact of the cold weather until the butler returned with hot mulled wine balanced carefully on a silver tray.
“Thank you, Maxson, just what I needed,” Val said with feeling before lifting the cup to his lips.
“Tell me the news from London,” Gray said, leaning back in his chair.
The two sipped their drinks while Val relayed the latest on dits and Gray alternately laughed and shook his head at the gossip.
“Have you seen the aunts recently?” Gray asked at last.
“I found Aunt Margaret at Lady Cranfield’s ball earlier this week. Aunt Joanna and Aunt Prudence were there as well, as was your mother and mine. We spent a good half hour visiting; they all appear happy, well, and busy with plans for the holidays.”
“And Hugh? What news of my heir?”
Val paused, shifting slightly, his gaze dropping to his mug.
Gray tensed. Something is amiss. “What is it, Val?”
“Nothing serious.” Val looked up at Gray, his green gaze direct. “At least, I don’t believe it to be. Not yet at least.”
Gray frowned. “What the bloody hell does that mean. Is he unwell?”
The instant denial relieved Gray. “If not ill, what then?” he asked, impatient. “It’s unlike him to run up gambling debt and he’s too well-versed in stocks to have lost on the Exchange.”
“Rumor has it he appears to be courting a woman.”
Speechless, Gray stared at his cousin. “Hugh? Courting? Who is she?”
“Ah, that’s the cause for concern.”
“Good god, don’t tell me he’s fallen for an actress.”
“No, no.” Val waved a hand in dismissal. “She’s a lady. A young widow.”
“Then I fail to see the difficulty. I’m delighted he’s thinking of marrying. I have no interest in doing so and since he’ll inherit Sheffield, he needs to be producing offspring. Preferably lots of offspring.” Gray’s grin faded as Val only continued to stare at him. “What?”
“Hugh is courting Lady Penelope Wentworth.”
Puzzled, Gray searched his memory of Debrette’s Peerage in an attempt to place a Penelope Wentworth.
“The name is familiar but …” He stilled, eyes narrowing over his cousin’s features. “Frederick Wentworth’s widow,” he said flatly.
While he was certain he’d never met Lady Penelope, he’d known her deceased husband all too well. The man had been Gray’s sworn enemy since they were boys at Eton. A worse profligate he’d never had the misfortune to meet. Even as a boy, Frederick Wentworth embodied everything Gray despised and the man had grown worse as he aged. Whispers of debauchery weren’t unexpected but rumors of Wentworth’s descent from use of excessive alcohol into his frequenting opium dens had surprised even Gray.
He hadn’t been sad to hear Wentworth had broken his neck in a carriage accident two years earlier. Gray had considered the world all the better for Wentworth’s having departed it and hadn’t given the man a thought since.
Until now. What were the chances Frederick Wentworth’s widow was a woman of sterling character, and not as worthless and morally corrupt as her husband? Gray wouldn’t bet a farthing on the odds.
“Bloody hell.” He tossed back the last of his drink and shoved to his feet. “Are you certain?” he demanded over his shoulder as he paced to the window.
“I am.” Val nodded. “I’d heard the rumor at White’s and wanted to observe for myself, which is why I was at Lady Endsley’s ball. Lady Penelope is pretty enough and I suspect, several years older than Hugh. The young pup danced twice with her and then escorted her in to supper–where they lingered for over an hour. And the food was execrable,” he added with a grimace. “Tiny little sandwiches filled with god knows what. Lady Endsley needs a new cook.”
Grayson barely registered the editorial comment on the menu, struck as he was by the news that his cousin and heir seemed to be courting an inappropriate woman. “Bloody hell.”
Val’s mouth twisted in a half-grin. “Is that all you can say? I expected much more violent objections.”
“Oh, I have objections,” Gray assured him. “No woman connected to Frederick Wentworth shall sink her talons into Hugh and go unscathed. God knows how many ways Wentworth corrupted her.”
He strode across the room and threw the door open. “Maxson,” he roared into the hallway before returning to his desk and sweeping up the letters and documents.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
He glanced up to see the butler in the doorway. “Tell Tiegs to pack my bags. I’m going to London.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” The butler bowed and quickly departed.
“Well, then.” Val deposited his empty mug on Gray’s desk and stood. “I’ll be traveling back with you. After riding most of the morning, I believe the cushions in your coach will prove much more comfortable to my abused arse than my damp saddle.”
* * *
Leicester Square, London
“I seem to have left my forest green thread in my room.” Lady Amelia Hamilton laid aside her embroidery hoop and rose. “I’ll only be a moment, Penelope.” She nodded at Hugh and moved gracefully across the parlor to disappear through the doorway.
Penelope waited until she could no longer hear the click of her cousin’s heeled slippers as Amelia made her way down the hall before turning to Hugh St. Cyr. The Marquis of Bath lounged easily in his seat, one leg crossed idly over the other, a half-empty teacup and saucer cradled in one large hand.
She frowned at him. “Hugh,” she began.
He raised a hand to stop her. “Penelope, please, I know what you’re going to say.”
“I’m sure you do,” she said repressively. “Which only makes it more annoying that I must say it again.” She ignored the swift grin that curved his mouth and hurried on before he could interrupt. “Your cousin the Duke is not going to be pleased when he learns you have been paying what surely must appear to be marked attention to me. You are bound to stir up a hornets’ nest and it’s completely unwarranted. We both know you aren’t interested in me romantically, not in the slightest.”
“Ah, Penelope.” He shook his head, his expression so seemingly bereft that if Penelope couldn’t easily read the sparkle of amusement in his green eyes, she would surely have felt guilty for crushing his hopes. “No man can control being targeted by Cupid’s arrow. I have been smitten by your undeniable charms and find myself helpless in the face of your beauty and graciousness.”
Penelope gave a most unladylike snort of disbelief. “Fustian. It’s not me you’re interested in. It’s Amelia. And I’ve told you repeatedly that she’s not ready for a suitor. Her father died but nine months ago.”
Hugh’s eyes turned inscrutable, his lashes half-lowering. “I am aware Lady Hamilton is still in mourning, Lady Penelope.” His words were excruciatingly polite and touched with frosty reserve. “However, I would hope my company has served to entertain and bring a moment of respite in the midst of her period of grief.”
Penelope sighed. “Hugh, I didn’t mean to suggest you haven’t been a wonderful and most considerate friend. I know your visits have helped cheer Amelia and ease her grief in no small way. However, I can’t help but feel the Duke will be most dismayed when he learns you have apparently singled me out for your attentions. I have been informed the betting book at White’s contains wagers that we will soon wed.” She frowned at him. “Nothing could be farther from the truth, as you well know. And before you deny it, we both know you dance attendance on me only so you can visit Amelia.”
“Ah, but Lady Hamilton is in mourning. I would not presume to force unwanted attentions on her during this time.” Hugh’s words were no longer chilled and his eyes held a twinkle of amusement. “To do so would be most improper.”
“You’re right, of course,” she replied. “but..”
The quick tap-tap of heels against the polished marble flooring in the hallway outside was accompanied by the thud of boots and a child’s laughter. The intrusion of sound had Penelope breaking off her comment. She glanced up, smiling with quick pleasure as Amelia and her eight-year-old brother entered the room.
Younger than Penelope by four years, Amelia’s hair was the same deep shade of ebony but her eyes were a paler blue, nearly grey, a color that was much lighter than Penelope’s deep blue. The cousins were nearly the same height at just under five feet six inches, and both had long, shapely limbs with decidedly curvy figures. Anyone meeting them would immediately assume they were related, perhaps sisters, and William’s dark hair and blue eyes would draw conclusions that he was their brother. In fact, the trio felt the same deep connection as if they were truly siblings.
“How was your walk, William?” Penelope asked her young cousin, happy to see the color in his cheeks and the sparkle in his blue eyes. The loss of their father earlier in the year had been a blow to both William and Amelia, as had the necessary immediate takeover of their family home by their oldest brother and his difficult wife.
Fortunately, Penelope had convinced their brother to permit Amelia and her adored younger brother to join her in London, on the pretext of easing them through the gloom of grief with city attractions. The new Baron was relieved to see them established in Penelope’s home for his young, pregnant, and very stressed wife was overwhelmed with her duties.
“We walked for blocks, Cousin Penelope,” William crowed with a grin. “And we ate a hot pasty from a street cart.”
Penelope raised an eyebrow and exchanged a rueful glance with Amelia. “And can I safely assume the pasty contained apples?” she teased.
“Yes!” The eight-year-old’s eyes closed in brief ecstasy before he once again fastened his bright gaze on her. “They were so good. Almost as good as cook’s apple crumble.”
Beside her, Hugh smothered a quick chuckle.
“I’m certain they were, dear.” Penelope refused to look at Hugh or Amelia for fear they would all be unable to hold in their laughter at the sheer delight written on William’s expressive features. Her young cousin was enamoured of all foods containing apples and he adored the cook, who indulged him at every opportunity. Clearly, the footman accompanying William on his walk this morning shared the cook’s leanings.
“I asked Bartle to request more tea,” Amelia interjected as she slipped gracefully into her seat. “And more of the fruit tarts, as they seem to be a particular favorite of both William and you,” she added, a smile in her eyes as she looked at Hugh.
“Excellent, thank you.” He glanced at Penelope. “I plan to steal your cook,” he declared with easy confidence. “I’m going to do all in my power to have her baking tarts for me, quite soon. I thought it only fair to warn you.”
“No-o-o-o-o!” William protested, clearly appalled.
Penelope laughed out loud. She couldn’t help herself. Hugh was thoroughly charming and despite what she was certain was his fixed attention on Amelia, he was indeed an entertaining companion. She found it impossible to remain out of sorts with him. Despite her conviction that the pleasure she and Amelia had found in his company over the last weeks was about to end, she couldn’t truly regret enjoying his friendship.
When the Duke arrived–as surely he must–to discover why his heir’s name had been linked with hers, she would simply have to find a way to deal with him. She only hoped the man wasn’t too arrogant to listen to her very reasonable explanation of the situation.
She feared, however, her hope might be overly optimistic.
The Duke of Sheffield was reputed to be dangerous–a powerful man accustomed to getting his own way. He reportedly ruled his family, estates, and legendary financial empire with an iron hand. She doubted he would find Hugh’s deliberate misleading of the ton’s gossips amusing.
Penelope could only hope the Duke would listen to her explanation with reason and understanding.
Pffft. Her inner skeptic scoffed at the prospect of a powerful Duke reacting with patience and sympathy to her situation.