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A light knock sounded on the bedchamber door. Lord Reginald Aldridge stepped quietly into the room and closed the door, shutting out the musical sounds from the four-piece string quartet that drifted up from below stairs. "I assumed you would be late, so I thought I would wait and escort you downstairs. Are you ready to make your grand entrance?"
"Almost." Lord Reginald's seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte, shifted impatiently as her maid fussed over the cascading array of honey-brown curls that trailed down the side of her long, graceful neck. "Jones got it all wrong and had to reset my hair, but I believe it is at last acceptable."
"It looks splendid to me," Lord Reginald said.
Charlotte turned, and managed a slight smile as her grandfather walked toward her. Though nearing sixty, he looked and acted like a much younger man. Tonight he wore a black velvet-collared frockcoat and stylish black trousers. A stark white cravat topped a silver-flecked waistcoat that nicely complemented the blue of his eyes and brought out the streaks of silver in his hair.
As he drew beside her, Charlotte noticed he carried a small tray containing two crystal goblets.
"Champagne!" Eagerly, she reached fora glass and after raising it high in a hasty toast, Charlotte gulped down half the contents. "It's wonderful. I love how the bubbles tickle my nose. I must be sure to commend the earl on the quality of his wine cellar when I see him tonight."
Lord Reginald turned an indulgent smile on his only grandchild. "'Tis probably better if you refrain from mentioning the champagne. Worthington and his countess can occasionally be a bit over-the-top when it comes to propriety."
"Hmmm." Charlotte sipped the remaining cold, bubbly liquid in her goblet and considered her grandfather's words. Though she had known the earl and countess of Worthington for most of her life, she had had very limited interaction with them. Until now.
She briefly wondered what else they might find offensive, besides a young woman drinking champagne, but pushed the notion from her mind. If things got out of hand, she knew she could rely on Grandpapa to protect her from the worst of any scandalous gossip.
In Charlotte's opinion, the rules that governed a young woman of society's life were vastly restrictive, monstrously unfair and highly tedious. While growing up, she had been lucky and allowed far more freedom than most aristocratic girls. Her natural curiosity and daring spirit had rarely been harnessed.
However, now she had reached the age of maturity and everything had changed. The scrutiny was far more intense, the expectations high. Fortunately, she was aware, and very capable, of following the rules. If it suited her purpose.
"I suppose we had best join the party or else we shall arrive unfashionably and inappropriately late," Charlotte decided. "I merely need to put on my jewelry."
At the mention of jewelry, Jones, Charlotte's maid, scurried about the room, retrieving both the jewel case and key. With a sly smile, Charlotte unlocked the black lacquer box and rummaged impatiently though the pieces nestled on the blue velvet lining. Pushing the garnet, sapphire and emerald gemstones out of the way, Charlotte finally discovered what she sought and extracted a square, flat box.
She flipped open the lid and could not contain the gasp of delight as she beheld the contents. Crafted of the finest gold, silver and diamonds, the necklace was reputed to be the most expensive and coveted piece of jewelry made in England in the past fifty years. It had been commissioned by her father and given to her mother on their wedding day, yet for Charlotte, it represented a connection to the parents she barely remembered. They had both suddenly and tragically died in a carriage accident when she was five years old.
Charlotte swallowed. Her fingers trembled slightly as she lifted out the magnificent necklace. It felt heavy in her hands. She placed it carefully around her throat and fastened the clasp. Then she stood up and turned to face her grandfather.
"How do I look?"
"Exquisite," Lord Reginald replied automatically, but then his smile broke and he cleared his throat loudly. "But are you sure about the necklace, sweetheart? Matrons are the ones usually draped in diamonds. Girls your age wear pearls. I'm sure you have several lovely strands in your jewel box, along with matching earbobs."
Charlotte stiffened her back, temper flashing in her emerald-green eyes. "The lace on my gown is an exact match to the intrigue gold and silver filigree work on the diamond necklace," she insisted. Reaching up, she fingered the clasp nestled at the side of her throat. "No other jewelry I own would be nearly as flattering with my ensemble."
Her hand lingered as she ran her fingers repeatedly over the smooth facets of the center-set stone. The entire piece was a fretwork of open and airy scrolled silver and gold, punctuated with large, flawless rose-cut diamonds that glittered like fire every time she moved.
Charlotte held a vague memory of her mother wearing the necklace, a fog of remembrance that had faded more and more with each passing year. This tangible link to the woman she had barely known was very important to her, but never more so than tonight.
"What do you want to do, Miss Charlotte?" Her maid's voice cut through the silent tension that had been steadily building.
She glanced over and saw that Jones had extracted three different pearl necklaces from the jewelry case, each stunning in its own way. But none could compare to the diamond necklace.
Charlotte gnawed her bottom lip, then cast a pitiful eye toward Lord Reginald. "If you insist that I wear pearls, I shall, Grandpapa," she declared, with a slight exaggeration to the trembling in her voice. "Above all else, I wish to please you and make you proud of me."
"Oh, my dearest girl, of course I am proud of you. No grandfather in the world is luckier than I." Lord Reginald moved closer and Charlotte flung both arms around his neck, sinking into the comfort and love of an embrace she had grown up depending upon. "You know that all I have ever wanted is for you to be happy," he whispered.
"I know." She heard him sigh and mutter under his breath. Charlotte pulled back and glanced up, then smiled inwardly with triumph as the stern set of his jaw and mouth softened. "May I wear the diamonds?"
Lord Reginald's lip tipped into a grin, and a mischievous twinkle entered his eyes. "I shall tell anyone who dares to comment that you are wearing the necklace at my command."
After a final adjustment to her coiffeur, Charlotte wove her arm through Lord Reginald's. Her stomach fluttered with excitement. This was the first evening event of the house party and above all, she wanted her entrance to be noteworthy.
They had arrived at Farmington Manor two days ago, part of an elite group of guests invited to attend the holiday celebrations of the earl and countess of Worthington. The Worthingtons were old and dear friends of Lord Reginald's, but Charlotte was very aware there was another reason for this invitation.
Now that she had reached a marriageable age, her grandfather had hinted quite broadly that he was very much in favor of a match between her and the earl's oldest son and heir, Edward. In truth, Charlotte had no particular reaction to her grandfather's scheming. Though she had not seen Edward in several years, she had been in his company often when they were children and remembered him as a polite, well-behaved and usually cautious boy who seemed to know everything.
Lord Reginald insisted that Edward had matured into a fine, handsome, steadfast young man, which Charlotte feared might mean he was stuffy, formal and a bit dull, but she was willing to give him a chance.
She was not, however, about to drop into Edward's clutches like an overripe piece of fruit falling from a tree. Charlotte was shrewd enough to know her worth on the marriage mart. Her grandfather was the brother of the Duke of Shrewsbury, her mother had been the sister of the Earl of Huntingdon.
She was her grandfather's sole heir, and a portion of her mother's dowry was also held in trust, to be given to her upon her marriage. With her lineage, looks and impressive dowry, Charlotte knew she would have her pick of any of the eligible wealthy and titled gentlemen of society. And she had decided long ago that she would marry a man of her own choosing, under her own terms, or she would not marry at all.
Charlotte took in her surroundings as they negotiated the numerous hallways on their way to the party. Farmington Manor, the ancestral home of their hosts, was a sprawling mansion. The original section of the house was built during the reign of Henry Tudor, but extensive remodeling and additions had been commissioned over the years.
The result was an odd blend of several different architectural styles, and Charlotte marveled at how all the pieces fit together, creating an impressive display of aristocratic heritage and wealth.
Yet even for all of its grandeur, Charlotte decided she preferred the atmosphere of their own home, Quincy Court. It was smaller in size than the manor, but just as luxuriously furnished. Her grandfather had excellent taste and a seemingly unlimited supply of funds with which to indulge his passions. And his greatest passion was creating a stylish, comfortable home for his granddaughter.
Finally Lord Reginald and Charlotte reached the main staircase. Descending arm in arm, they followed the noise and entered the main salon, a cavernous room with gilded columns, gold brocade sofas and urns filled with an unusual mix of bright evergreen branches and blooming red hothouse roses. They were the last to arrive, but the happy chatter and murmur of voices rumbling beneath the strains of music told them the party had clearly begun without them.
Since this was an informal event, there was no receiving line. They paused a moment to get their bearings and Charlotte surveyed the room with what she hoped was a casual air.
Many of the other guests were close to her grandfather in age, but there were a few younger people, enough to make things interesting. Charlotte had been introduced to all the houseguests the previous day, but felt no desire to join the small group of young ladies gathered near the fireplace.
They had all been polite toward her, especially Miranda Chambers and her twin sister, Elizabeth, but Charlotte was not overly comfortable in the company of women. Since entering society this past spring, it had been her experience that females and more often, their mothers, were stiff and judgmental toward her. She was unsure if they envied her looks, her money or her confident air.
Whatever the reason, Charlotte had decided it was unimportant. She would make no major concessions to win the approval of anyone, especially a group of tight-lipped women. Tonight she was going to have fun and Charlotte was determined to ignore any frowning faces sent her way.
"Lord Reginald! Miss Aldridge!" Rosemary Barringer, Countess of Worthington, glided toward them. "I am so glad that you have finally arrived. I was beginning to worry that I would have to send a footman out to search for you. More than one guest has found themselves hopelessly turned around, especially on the upper floors. These hallways can seem like a rabbit warren to those unfamiliar with them."
Was the countess trying to be witty? Or was she scolding them for being tardy? Charlotte was tempted to ask if they had misplaced a great number of houseguests over the years, but the pleading glance from her grandfather made her hold her tongue. He so wanted her to make a good impression. And she truly did strive to please him.
"It seems like a splendid party, my lady," Lord Reginald said. "I greatly look forward to the dancing later this evening and I insist you save not one, but two dances for me."
"I would be honored," the countess replied, blushing slightly. Then she turned her attention toward Charlotte and looked her up and down with thoughtful eyes. "The earl and I have greatly valued your grandfather's friendship over the years. It is my dearest wish that our two families become even closer, hopefully through the younger generation."
Charlotte willed herself not to move a muscle, unsure if she should feel flattered or annoyed. The countess was certainly being presumptuous and hardly subtle. What if Charlotte decided she did not want to marry her son?
"Ah, so there you are at last. I have been despondent for over an hour, pining away in the corner like a lost dog. I was beginning to lose hope that I would ever set eyes upon you again, and now, finally my diligence has been rewarded."
Charlotte recognized the male voice. She turned and gifted her rescuer with her most dazzling smile. "Mr. Barringer. How truly delightful to see you."
Jonathan Barringer was the earl and countess's younger son. At twenty-one, he was a handsome, fun-loving rogue, with a biting sense of humor. As a boy, he had been daring, athletic and surprisingly sensitive. He had matured into a fine-looking man; blond, blue-eyed, with a tall, strapping body. Charlotte had always liked him.
"I do not understand why you persist on referring to me as Mr. Barringer," he grumbled. "We have known each other for ages." He lifted her gloved hand, turned it palm up and kissed the sensitive bare flesh on the inside of her wrist. "I insist you call me Jonathan."
Charlotte's smile widened at his obvious charm and teasing flirtation. He always made her feel special.
The countess sniffed with disdain. "Miss Aldridge is acting like a proper young lady, displaying her good breeding and manners. Unlike you. Everyone knows that first-name familiarity should be reserved for family members."
"Such as a husband and wife?" Jonathan asked with an innocent smile. "Are you suggesting that I marry Miss Aldridge, just so I may hear my Christian name uttered by her luscious lips? Goodness, Mother, that is a bit forward, even for you."
The countess's eyes widened with shock. Two spots of color appeared high on her cheeks, but before she could scold her younger son, he whisked Charlotte away.
"You are a very wicked man, Jonathan Barringer," Charlotte declared with a laugh the moment they were out of earshot.
"She almost makes it too easy for me," Jonathan replied with an answering grin.
Charlotte nodded, but said nothing else. Though he might tease her mercilessly, she knew Jonathan loved his mother and would tolerate no criticism of her from an outsider.
"Come, let's mingle," Jonathan suggested.
After only a slight hesitation, Charlotte rested her hand on the sleeve of his coat. She would rather stand off by herself and wait for people to come to her, but she understood Jonathan's responsibilities as a host. So for his sake she smiled politely and greeted the other guests, and even managed not to squirm when several of the women looked her up and down with the scrutiny of a cat sizing up a mouse.
Their slightly raised eyebrows made her doubly glad she had insisted on wearing the diamond necklace. The jewels felt warm against her skin, bringing her comfort and confidence. They set off the details of her gown to perfection and Charlotte knew she was the prettiest girl at the party.
"Have I told you yet how marvelous you look?" Jonathan asked, almost as if reading her thoughts.
"You have not, sir," Charlotte replied, playfully tapping her closed fan on his forearm.
"Forgive me, fair maiden. You are truly a vision tonight."
"So it was worth the wait?" Charlotte wanted to know.
"More than you will ever know."
Charlotte lowered her eyelids, then gazed up through her long lashes. "I simply had to look my best this evening."
Jonathan drew his face closer to hers. "Why?"
"Because you are here."
They both laughed. It was marvelous, harmless fun to flirt with Jonathan. She had long held a deep affection for him, similar to what she believed she would have felt if she had been lucky enough to have had a brother.
Jonathan snatched two champagne goblets from a passing servant and handed her one. Charlotte smiled, pleased he remembered how much she liked the bubbly nectar. The evening progressed and Charlotte found herself beginning to relax and enjoy herself, thanks to Jonathan's witty companionship.
Excerpted from The Christmas Heiress by Adrienne Basso Copyright © 2006 by Adrienne Basso. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 2, 2008
This my first time to read this author and I enjoyed it very much. I cannot understand why this story was only given a one star rating. I found it especially tender and delightful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 16, 2008
The beginning was really good but after the so many years later it got boring. I thought the girl would toughen up and learn from what happened but she must have forgotten somehow. it just proves that some people don't change for the better. I never got the feeling that they genuinely liked each other, it seemed they just tolerated each other. I like a story with some challenge. This was very predictable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.