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"Margery, dear, would you take the gingerbread out of the oven in five minutes? I have laid the washing outside on the bushes in back and want to see if it is dry . . . or frozen."
Margery chuckled. "I should be able to manage, Bessie, despite my sad lack of skills in the kitchen. How thoughtful of you to make us such a treat. The smell of the spices will add to our holiday spirit."
"I remember how you always enjoyed gingerbread, dear. You would beg Cook for it when you were small." Miss Bessamy bundled herself up to face the elements and trudged out the back door.
Margery recalled the cook at her parents' estate. Over a glass of apple cider and a slice of warm gingerbread, Mrs. Battersea was often willing to listen to a little girl's hopes and dreams, hopes and dreams that were to go so terribly awry.
Margery admired the effects of the greenery over the fireplace. 'Twould do no good, she decided, to dwell on the past. Reaching forward to make some final adjustments, she pricked her finger for what had to be the fourth time that morning. "I shall have a happy Christmas," she said aloud, as if daring the Fates to make it otherwise.
Just then, there was a knock at the front door. Startled, Margery patted her hair and smoothed the skirts of her black wool gown, one of the few mourning dresses she had had made up after Simon's death.
She swung open the door to see one of Lady Altham's footmen, dressed magnificently in her ladyship's gold and green livery.
"Message for Lady Margery. See that your mistress gets it," the footman ordered, mistaking her for a maid.
Margery wasted no time contemplating the servant's rudeness. Instead,she closed the door after the retreating footman and ripped open the missive. Lady Altham begged her to reconsider her refusal to join the Christmas house party. She confessed Lady Margery's calm good sense would be welcome in helping her plan some of the activities and entertainments.
Christmas was three weeks away, but Lady Altham wanted Margery now. The first of her guests would be arriving within the week, and the whole affair was dreadfully disorganized, Lady Altham bemoaned. She would anxiously await Margery's answer.
Margery looked up from the letter and gazed thoughtfully into the fire. She was not at all surprised at Lady Altham's need of a steady hand to help arrange the house party. Her ladyship was a trifle scatterwitted, to put it politely, in Margery's opinion.
Lady Altham, the widow of an earl, was now in late middle age. Despite her age and lineage, Lady Altham's behavior could be judged less than what one might consider perfectly proper.
Margery recalled the widow's hair being a mass of girlish, graying ringlets, and her gowns tended toward the youthful and garish. Each time Margery had called on her, the lady had had a different gentleman "visiting."
Surely, though, there was no real indecency about her. It was not that unusual for a female of a certain age to lament the loss of her youth and to affect the modes and manners of a much younger woman.
Margery bit her bottom lip. Her nagging conscience told her Miss Bessamy would delight in a holiday at Lady Altham's. But how could she, Margery, face the hard-eyed members of the ton who would be there?
Would any of them be aware what a sham her marriage had been? Had there been whispers in Town about how Simon had gone on much in the same way after his marriage as he had before?
Margery shivered inwardly. The ladies would question where she had been hiding herself since his death. They would gossip. And the gentlemen! She wanted nothing to do with any one of them.
The smell of burning gingerbread interrupted these depressing thoughts. With a gasp, Margery darted across the room in a vain attempt to save Miss Bessamy's efforts.
She grasped a cloth to protect her fingers and pulled the blackened cake from the oven. "Tarnation!" Margery exclaimed, irritated with herself beyond reason.
Miss Bessamy came rushing in the back door, pressing a hand against her generous bosom in dismay. "Good heavens!"
Margery jumped at the words and burned the side of her thumb on the hot pan. "Oh, the deuce take Christmas!" she cried, holding her injured hand.
"What did you say, Lady Margery?" Miss Bessamy asked in a stern tone that made Margery feel six years old.
"Oh, Bessie, I am sorry. You see--"
But she got no further. An ominous ripping and cracking sound came from the thatched roof above the loft where Margery slept. The roof gave way with a whoosh, sending masses of snow and debris crashing down into the cottage.
They rushed upstairs, and both ladies stared openmouthed at the disaster. Snow covered Margery's bed and the floor surrounding it.
Well, Margery thought, feeling a bubble of hysteria rising in her chest, her bed always had been cold--even during her marriage.
"Pack your things, Bessie," she said grimly. "We are going to Lady Altham's. Where we shall have a happy Christmas, by God."
Jordan Sutherland, fifth Viscount Reckford, known to his intimates as "Reckless," strolled out of the cold of St. James's Street and into White's Club.
Handing his greatcoat, hat, gloves, and stick to a waiting footman, his lordship moved easily to the table by the bow window where his friends hailed him.
"Town's devilishly thin of company, eh, Reckless? Come join us for a glass. We've thrown down our cards for the night," Lord Powell said. He was a portly earl known for his excellent taste in walking sticks.
Jordan's lips twisted into a half smile as he nodded to the gentlemen seated around the table. "Evening, Powell, Brummell, Alvanley."
A tall, elegant figure with a handsome, hard profile, the viscount no sooner sat down than a servant appeared with a fresh glass and placed it in front of him.
"Evening, Jordan. Beg pardon, Powell," Beau Brummell drawled. "I must take exception to your observation. I am here, and thus Town is still fashionable. After tomorrow Town will be flat, for I am leaving."
Brummell's friend Alvanley, who was to accompany him to Oatlands, the Duchess of York's country estate, chuckled, as did Lord Powell. He turned his attention to the new arrival. "I say, Reckless, are you staying in Town for the holidays?"
Jordan lounged back in his chair. The candlelight caught a flicker of amusement in his blue-black eyes. "I thought I would." He raised his glass to his lips and took a sip of White's best canary.
Brummell might look with disfavor on Jordan's overlong dark hair, which was in opposition to the current mode. But, as the undisputed arbiter of fashion, the Beau could certainly find no fault with the viscount's sleek blue evening coat, crisp white cravat, and pearl-colored breeches.
"What's this?" Lord Powell demanded, leaning forward in his chair. "I thought you'd be on your way out to Lady Altham's Christmas party to, er, pick flowers."
Jordan chuckled softly at this quip. "Ah, you must be referring to Lovely Lily Carruthers. Is she to grace Lady Altham's?"
Alvanley made a moue of distaste. "Lady Altham? That old rip? She was just in Town during autumn ogling anything in breeches."
Lord Powell ignored this and focused his attention on Jordan. "Lily'll be there, indeed, yes," the earl replied. "Finally taken her leave of Bath and the Duke of Berham. I hear she wants to spend a few weeks out of his company to consider his offer of a carte blanche. Reckon you might want to strike a bargain with her, Reckless, before she consents to the duke's protection."
Jordan yawned. "I did not accept Lady Altham's kind invitation. Her house is halfway to Yorkshire. Such a distance. Mrs. Carruthers is bound to return to London. No use putting myself out."
"Tread carefully, Reckless. Despite the fact she has little reputation left, Lovely Lily is said to be holding out for a husband," Lord Alvanley warned.
The viscount's brows rose. "But I do not want a wife."
The gentlemen around the table drank a toast to Lovely Lily. To a man, they knew Jordan would be the last gentleman in Society looking for a bride. Not after what happened with his first wife.
The conversation turned to other accommodating women of the ton who were known to be ripe for dalliance, and this topic so interested the gentlemen that it was some time before Lord Powell returned to the subject of Jordan's plans for Christmas.
"I think I might be quite comfortable billeting with Ruby," the viscount told the company with a lazy smile. Ruby was his current mistress and the prettiest of the season's opera dancers. Her blond hair and lips the color of her name had captured his attention; his purse had captured hers. He had her tucked away in a snug house in Bolton Street. "We shall spend our evenings singing Christmas carols."
An appreciative chuckle went around the table at this bouncer.
Brummell's eyes twinkled. "After a time, Ruby's favorite shall be 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,' no doubt."
Shouts of laughter greeted this witticism.
"'God Rest Ye Merry Rogue,' more like," Lord Powell added, clutching his sides. "By Jupiter, Reckless, next you will tell us you plan to indulge in a game of Hunt the Slipper."
The gentlemen went on much in this vein until at last Brummell and Alvanley got up and took their leave. The club seemed to dim a bit after their departure, and Lord Powell and Jordan sat in companionable silence for some time while the contents of the bottle diminished.
Eventually Lord Powell ventured a cautious statement. "Heard Harry lost a bundle last night at the faro table."
Jordan groaned aloud. "No, Arthur, not again."
Lord Powell nodded. "S'truth. The lad seems hell-bent on relieving himself of his quarter's allowance and more. Know you are friends with Thorpe, his father, and have been keeping an eye on the young cub."
Jordan sat up and ran a lean hand through his dark hair. "Devil take Algernon Yarsmith, Viscount Harringham. Since he came down from Oxford and arrived in Town, I have rescued him from more scrapes than you have had hot dinners, Arthur. What am I to do, play nursemaid to the brat until the holidays are over?"
Lord Powell shook his head mournfully. "That would put a damper on your plans for Ruby. But someone's got to take Harry in hand."
"Thorpe ought to be here, damme, or Harry ought to go home for Christmas. The holidays are for families, after all," Jordan said with a touch of bitterness. His own parents had always been too cold and too wrapped up in their social life to consider their son. Their Christmas house party would not boast any person under the age of sixty.
"Jordan, you know Thorpe won't come to Town without his wife to make life comfortable, and she can't abide Society. Besides which, if you think you can convince that whelp to tear himself away from the gaming tables and the bits of muslin to go home, well then, cast your mind back ten years."
Jordan raised one dark eyebrow and slanted a look at his friend. "Thank you, I would rather not remember anything about that time of my life."
Jordan cleared his throat. "Wasn't meaning Delilah. Before all that."
"Good, for I shall not discuss my dearly departed wife even with you, Arthur." Jordan drained his glass.
"Mayhaps you should reconsider Lady Altham's invitation. Take Harry with you. He worships you, would go with you in a flash. Lady Altham would relish adding a healthy, easy-on-the-eye cub like Harry to her party."
"Perhaps," Jordan said, unconvinced.
"'Course, you could always write Thorpe and tell him how his son has been cutting a swath through the gaming rooms."
"You know I would not be such a spoilsport," Jordan said, and rose. He drummed the fingers of one hand on the table and looked in the direction of the large fireplace. "You may have the right of it, Arthur. Harry's a good sort, but I need to get him away from the temptations of Town."
Lord Powell stood as well, and the two men strolled toward the door where they paused to retrieve their possessions from a footman. The earl took up a beautifully carved ebony walking stick. "Best get on the road before any more snow falls, Jordan. As you said, Lady Altham's house is a far distance from Town."
Jordan sighed, then a smile played about his sensuous mouth. "Looks like I shall be in Lovely Lily's company after all."
"Heh, heh, quite right," the earl said, chuckling. "Just remember she's husband hunting before you mistake her bedchamber for yours one cold night. Don't want to end up in leg shackles."
Jordan passed through the door of White's Club and stood on the freezing sidewalk. His face showed signs of weariness. "Never fear, no lady shall ever have the misfortune of calling me husband again."
Lord Powell briefly clasped his friend's shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Jordan."
Placing his curly-brimmed beaver hat on his head, Jordan turned to walk across the slushy street where his town coach waited. He paused for a moment and glanced back at the earl with a sudden grin. "Some might say I really am a cad, Arthur. But, I promise you, I shall bring the ladies of the house party nothing but tidings of comfort and joy."
Jordan went on his way, while St. James's Street rang with the earl's laughter.