One spectacular Christmas, Lady Perdita Selby, known to her friends and family as Poppy, met the man she thought she would love forever. The devilishly attractive Duke of Fletcher was the perfect match for the innocent, breathtakingly beautiful young Englishwoman, and theirs was the most romantic wedding she had ever seen. Four years later, Poppy and the duke have become the toast of the ton . . . but behind closed doors the spark of their love affair has burned out.
Unwilling to lose the woman he still lusts after, the duke is determined to win back his beguiling bride's delectable affections . . . and surpass the heady days of first love with a truly sinful seduction.
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An Affair Before Christmas
By Eloisa James Avon Copyright © 2007 Eloisa James
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Chapter One Four years later
An excerpt from The Morning Post,
April 22, 1783
The buzz of the past few days amongst the ton has been the challenge that the Earl of Gryffyn offered the Duke of Villiers. It seems that the earl has stolen away the duke's fiancé. We cannot comment on the veracity of this report, but we would note that dueling has been strictly prohibited by our gracious sovereign ...
Townhouse of the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont A morning party in celebration of the Earl of Gryffyn's victory in a duel
"The Duchess of Fletcher," the butler announced with a magnificent bellow. When he said nothing about the duke, Poppy looked behind her ... but Fletch was gone. He had drifted away to some other part of Beaumont House without bothering to be announced. Or inform her of his intentions.
She could feel her smile turning rigid so she picked up her skirts and edged down the three marble steps into the ballroom. Side panniers made it difficult enough to negotiate doorways and stairs, but this morning her French maid had outdone herself. A veritable cascade of frills, curls and bows towered over Poppy's head, the whole of it draped with strings of small pear-shaped pearls. Walking was challenging; stairs were truly dangerous.
Not that it wasn't worth it. She was fiercely determined to achieve an elegance to match her husband's. Fletch and his costumes were the toast of London; she would never allow it to be said that his duchess shamed him. She didn't want anyone to be sorry for her. Ever.
Naturally Fletch hadn't said a word about her costume in the carriage, though he must have realized that her gown was new. Perhaps he thought its embroidery (in shades of gold and pearl) was too formal for a morning occasion. Poppy took a deep breath. If she'd learned anything from her four years of marriage, it was that one cannot guess what a man is thinking.
She revised that thought. Certain male thoughts were crystal clear.
"Your Grace," came a deep voice at her ear. "May I escort you to the other side of the ballroom, where there is less of a crush? The Duchess of Beaumont is to be found there."
"I'd be honored," Poppy said to her host, curtsying just deeply enough to acknowledge his rank without disbalancing her hair. The Duke of Beaumont was attired in a simple coat of dark green velvet with turned-back cuffs of sage green. Of course, men rarely dressed as formally as women. She placed her hand lightly on his arm and they strolled through the ballroom, nodding at acquaintances. "I hadn't thought to see you this morning," Poppy said, before she realized that was rather impolite.
The duke-a consummate politician known jointly for his disdain for infamy and his infamous duchess, Jemma-gave a rueful smile. "Undoubtedly this party will be the scandal of the week, since it is held to celebrate a duel. To be quite truthful, in the normal run of events I would likely avoid this particular gathering. But as it is my own duchess holding the party, and in my own house, more commotion would result if I did not attend."
Poppy felt a rush of sympathy for the poor duke. He was one of the most important men in the House of Lords, a man whose conviction, eloquence and power were known all over England. The last thing he needed in his life was scandal. And though she dearly loved Jemma from their days together in Paris, she had to admit that gossip-mongers adored the Duchess of Beaumont for good reason; everything Jemma did seemed to cause a sensation. It must be difficult to be married to her.
Almost as difficult as being married to Fletch.
She froze for a second. "Are you fatigued, Your Grace?" Beaumont asked, pausing. "Would you prefer to sit down?"
"Oh no," she said, pushing thoughts about her marriage away. "I am so looking forward to seeing Jemma. I haven't seen her since before I married, when we both lived in Paris. She must be happy to find that her brother won the duel."
"Naturally we are all relieved that the occasion ended without undue bloodshed," Beaumont said evenly, his voice showing how much he disliked the idea of celebrating his brother-in-law's illegal foray into dueling. "And here is the duchess herself."
He bowed, and left. Jemma looked even more elegant than she had four years ago in Paris. Though she was wearing panniers too, her skirts weren't stiff like Poppy's but soft and flowing. And whereas Poppy's hair was curled into rigid little snail shells, Jemma's hair was shaped into soft curls, so lightly powdered that its natural gold color shone through. Her beauty had deepened; the sensual air that Poppy remembered was even more pronounced.
"Jemma," Poppy exclaimed. "How lovely you look!"
Jemma turned and gave a little shriek of welcome. "It's Poppy!" she cried, snatching her into a hug. Then she backed up and narrowed her eyes. "What has happened to the little mademoiselle I knew so well in Paris? You are exquisite! You put us all to shame. Look at us, three duchesses, and you are the only one who looks the part."
Poppy had already realized that she had grotesquely miscalculated the formality of the party. No wonder Fletch said nothing of her gown. Poppy smiled apologetically at the lady standing beside Jemma. "I'm sorry, but I don't think-"
"We've never met," she said, dropping a curtsy. "Jemma is engaging in hyperbole. I am no duchess. My name is Lady Isidore Del'Fino." Lady Isidore was wearing a gorgeous costume of soft rose-colored crêpe-de-chine. If Jemma was all sleek perfection, Lady Isidore looked like a ripe cherry, seductive and delicious. Poppy's heart sank even deeper.
"Isidore, this is the Duchess of Fletcher. Isidore is almost a duchess," Jemma said, giving Poppy's arm another affectionate squeeze. "She married by proxy and is just waiting for her duke to return from his travels."
Excerpted from An Affair Before Christmas by Eloisa James Copyright © 2007 by Eloisa James. Excerpted by permission.
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