This Christmas will change everything! Sinfully handsome, wrongfully accused, he is offered money and respectability in exchange for his freedom . . .
Sinfully handsome, wrongfully accused, he is offered money and respectability in exchange for his freedom . . .
Nicholas Hawkely, second son of a duke, newly resigned Captain of HMS Renown, finds his recent betrothal to the spinster daughter of a wealthy banker most inconvenient. After ten years of fighting Napoléon, he has dreams of traveling the world on new adventures, not marrying a woman chosen by his father.
Jilted spinster, reluctant heiress, she wants only a quiet life with no complications . . .
Charlotte St. John prefers quiet pleasures such as riding through the park and birdwatching rather than dances, soirées, or an arranged marriage. Horrified that her father has chosen the disgraced son of a duke to be her husband, she escapes the city for a peaceful Christmas at the Sussex country home of a friend.
But in fleeing their fates, they run right into them when, days later, they both find themselves at the same country estate, trapped by a blizzard, celebrating the yuletide season. And they quickly learn not to underestimate the power of mistletoe . . . and Christmas miracles.
Since her first romance novel came out in 1984, Virginia Brown has written over 50 novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, Career Achievement Award for Adventure, EPIC eBook nomination for Historical Romance, and she received the RT Career Achievement Award for Historical Adventure, as well as the EPIC eBook Award for Mainstream Fiction. Her works have regularly appeared on national bestseller lists.
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Virginia spent much of her childhood traveling with her parents as a “military brat,” living all over the US and in Japan. This influenced her love of travel and adventure, which she indulges with research trips to England and Scotland as often as possible. While Ms. Brown spent her formative years in Jackson, Mississippi, she now lives near her children in North Mississippi, surrounded by a menagerie of beloved dogs and cats while she writes.
|Product dimensions:||5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.40(d)|
Read an Excerpt
London, November 1816
"YOU WILL MARRY Miss St. John," said the duke, flicking back the lace on his cuff in a negligent motion that riveted his son's attention. "It is in your best interests."
"I am a bit old to be told what I have to do," replied Lord Nicholas Hawkely nonchalantly, despite his irritation. He was still suffering the ill effects of too much arrack punch when he'd been peremptorily summoned to attend Avonhurst.
Carefully sanding the wet ink on a newly signed document on his desk, the duke didn't look up. "Nevertheless, it is the best choice you have been given."
Irritation deepened to resentment. "And if I choose not to marry her?"
Now his father glanced up at him. A faint smile curled the duke's thin lips. Hawkely knew that smile. It was not a smile meant to convey reassurance. So, he wasn't surprised to hear his father say, "You may have cause to regret that decision."
"Indeed? I would be fascinated to hear how I would regret agreeing to an unwanted marriage."
Leaning back in his chair, Avonhurst regarded his son for a long moment. "It seems that your recent investments in the British East Indies have proven unsuccessful. You have only a small inheritance from your late mother, and what is left of the Navy commission you sold after the ... unfortunate events in Java."
"You mean my being accused of theft by the Crown? Yes, that is rather unfortunate. It ended any chance of continuing my Navy career, at any rate."
The duke regarded him from heavy-lidded eyes and nodded slowly. "Indeed. A quite distasteful business. The artifacts are said to be very valuable."
"Yes." Nicholas Alexander Brandon Hawkely, second son of a duke, newly resigned Captain of HMS Renown, offered no apology or protestations of innocence. In his experience, it usually availed nothing to continue to cry one's virtue. Official inquiries had found no evidence of his guilt or participation, and no charges had been brought against him. Yet in the court of public opinion, the papers and gossips found him guilty. Maddening, but futile to rail against it.
Shuffling the document in front of him, Avonhurst regarded him with a lifted brow. "Your actions since returning to England have been less than admirable. It is rumored that you frequent Number 13 Bond Street to conduct pugilism with some ruffian known as Gentleman Johnson. You accepted a challenge to duel in St. James's Park, all over some actress I'm told, and if not for the Watch stopping the duel, it would have most likely ended badly. Your luck in gaming hells has not ruined you, but in your absence, you managed to incur a rather large debt at White's, purchased Tattersall horses, employed tailors, glovers, jewelers, and left a host of other trivial chits scattered across London. An amazing feat, as you were thousands of miles away. Soon your expenditures will exceed your income or holdings. It begs explanation."
Nick did not rise to the bait. It was all true, but if he acknowledged that he'd allowed his younger brother to run up debts in his name — an unwise gesture in retrospect — Robert may well find himself stripped of all hope of an income. Avonhurst had made that clear in the past, when Robert had run afoul of creditors. He had cut off all funding for Robert so that he'd had to return to the country estate, a penitent dependent on his father's largesse. If the duke refused him even that sanctuary, Robert would be on the streets.
"Pardon, but I still do not see how this merits a marriage to Miss St. John," Nick finally said when the silence stretched too long. "Perhaps I am missing a vital point."
"So it seems. Charles St. John is her father. You have, I assume, heard of him?"
"The second richest banker in London and probably most of Europe? Yes, I have heard of him."
"Charles St. John is a doting father and extraordinarily fond of his two daughters. He wishes to see them wed into the peerage."
"That should be simple enough. With England reeling from the cost of the wars against Napoléon and the United States, and our taxes ruinous, there is a surplus of near-bankrupt peers, I imagine."
"Mr. St. John has set his sights higher than a mere baronet or baron. As your older brother is already wed, though yet childless, you are the son of a duke with the possibility of one day gaining both title and estates."
"So, I am the sacrificial lamb to your financial objectives?"
It was a direct hit. Avonhurst eyed him narrowly. "My finances are not your concern."
"They are if you use me to recoup any losses or fill your coffers."
Avonhurst waved his hand impatiently. "It is not my coffers that are depleted. You have properties that require maintenance you cannot currently afford so I have provided the necessary funds to your steward. But I digress. Miss St. John is suitable for you and her dowry is immense. You will be able to pay all your accrued debts and live comfortably. Get some heirs, as Huntingdon has not been able to produce, and one day you may be duke."
"God save me from that," Nick retorted. "It does not seem to be an asset in which I find myself sufficiently interested."
"The entail can pass you over if I decree it so," the duke said mildly.
"As I would rather face debtor's prison than be duke, do as you wish."
"I fully intend to do so, despite your overly dramatic comments. I have just signed the marriage contract my solicitor drew up with Mr. St. John. Your signature is required. Unless you prefer I have Robert put in debtor's prison on your behalf ..."
A dozen thoughts flew through Nick's mind in an instant, primary among them being what his refusal would do to Robert. Granted, his brother had been foolish and he felt like throttling him for running up debts in his name, but Robert was young and had little experience. While he doubted the duke would imprison Robert, he also believed his father would cut him off without a penny. Robert would be destroyed. After their mother's death when Robert was born, Nick had taken him under his wing and done his best to give the child love that the duke could not seem to feel. He'd given his little brother affection, even memories of their mother to cherish, as he had, and somehow, he felt responsible for Robert. It had been his mother's dying wish that her newborn child be cherished. Yet the thought of spending years with a woman he did not know or care about left Nick appalled. He had seen the empty life that created, as the duke's second marriage was cold and loveless. His childless stepmother now spent her days in pursuit of shallow pleasures, gaming, and spending the duke's money. No, that fate was not one he envied or could tolerate.
Avonhurst dipped the pen in ink and held it out to him. He stared at it for a long moment, wondering how in the world he'd ever get out of this.
MISS CHARLOTTE St. John felt the color drain from her face as she faced her father. "I do not think I heard you correctly, Papa. Marry Lord Nicholas Hawkely? Do you mean the same Lord Nicholas known as the biggest rake and rogue in London? Accused of theft by British East India?"
Charles St. John waved a dismissive hand. "He has not actually been accused of theft by any official. It is merely unfair speculation by the papers."
"It's also said he keeps company with actresses, Covent Garden soiled doves, and wastes most of his money gambling."
Papa looked appalled, his round, whisker-framed face creased with concern. "How would you know of such things, Chary? It is unsuitable that a gently reared young lady should even know about soiled doves."
"I can read the scandal sheets, and Lord Nicholas Hawkely is a subject of conversation at more than a few London houses, you know. He seduced Miss Treadway and ruined her for any possible marriage, and —"
Papa interrupted, "Chary, my dear — his father has assured me that Lord Nicholas will make a fine husband. You will marry into the peerage, and your children will be peers. Does that mean nothing to you?"
Helplessly, she stared at her father. He'd always been loving and patient, but she had no illusions that he would refuse an offer of the title Lady Nicholas for his daughter. If only Mama were still alive, she could persuade him that titles did not mean the man was worthy. But then, Mama's father had been a baronet and she had married for love, so she knew the value of titles. Papa had always felt the sting of his in-laws' contempt for him as a commoner, despite Mama's efforts.
Papa smiled. "You will see that it is the right thing, I am certain. He is to call on you tomorrow afternoon to offer. Once you meet him, I am sure all will be well."
Shocked that it was to happen so soon, Chary stood up, her hands twisting the muslin skirt of her gown. "I am not at all certain what has induced Lord Nicholas to wed a banker's daughter, but I wish you had considered my wishes."
"Arranged marriages are usually quite suitable. And only think, if he should inherit the dukedom one day, you will be a duchess. Isn't that exciting?"
Chary stared at him for a moment, wondering how, after twenty-five years, he still didn't know who she was or what was most important to her. Did he not recall the disaster of her brief engagement to Charwell? And how the shame of his rejection of her in favor of another woman had caused her such grief? No, apparently her father thought she'd had enough time to recover. And while she had long since ceased to care about the man, the betrayal still hurt.
Then, because there was nothing else to say, she murmured, "I am going upstairs to lie down. I feel a headache coming on."
Papa called after her, "Chary, wait," but she did not pause, fumbling at the study doors and flinging them open, not bothering to shut them behind her.
The winding staircase had never seemed so far as she fled, hand lightly skimming the smooth, polished balustrade as she ascended to her chambers. Familiar walls closed around her, and she fought tears as she leaned back against the closed door. Her entire life had been spent in these rooms — striped blue brocade wallpaper, cheval mirror in its stand between two long sashed windows, tester bed with heavy blue velvet hangings for winter, a fire in the grate warming the rug, and Bergére chairs placed on each side ... so familiar and comfortable. Bookshelves lined with books on birds and flowers, volumes of French poetry, novels by Jane Austen and Voltaire, her pencils and drawing paper, and the journals in which she wrote the mundane details of her life. Her writing desk that was kept furnished with fresh quill and ink, as well as clean stationary to write letters, beckoned to her but she had not the heart to put down her thoughts at the moment.
Instead her cheval mirror showed her what Hawkely would see when he met her, and she had the sinking feeling he would not be impressed. No blond beauty, but plain brown hair swept back from her face, blue eyes on the small side, a determined chin, and rather full lips that seemed too large for her face. Not tall, not petite, her shape hovering between generous and fat. Nondescript. That is how she would describe herself. What on earth possessed Hawkely to offer for her? No doubt, Papa had offered a huge dowry. Little else would be inducement enough for the man said to have broken more hearts in one London Season than there had been young ladies presented to the court. But that had been several years ago, when he had been home from the Navy and before the Incident that was gossiped about in parlors and printed in the Times. Perhaps his disgrace necessitated his marrying, but she still could not imagine why she had been chosen. No doubt, Papa did not want to admit that he had purchased her a duke's prodigal son as a husband.
Cecily burst into her bedchamber, little hands fluttering excitedly. "Is it true, Chary, is it? Are you going to marry a duke's son?"
She had to smile, even while she spared a moment's gratitude Papa had chosen her for such a mésalliance rather than sweet, spirited Cecily.
"So it seems. Unless I can think of a way to escape."
Cecily stopped her gleeful pirouetting to stare at her older sister in the mirror. "But why? He is young, handsome, and has a title. Isn't that what every woman wants?"
"He doesn't have a title, his father does. And most women want happiness more than a title, Cecey. Marriage is not always a guarantee of that, no matter to whom you are married."
Smiling dreamily, Cecey crossed to hug her. "Yet surely you can find happiness with such a handsome man. The son of a duke, Chary! You will travel in exalted circles, be invited to all the best balls ... oh, how I long for such moments."
"How do you know if he is handsome anyway?" Chary asked with an indulgent smile at her irrepressible young sister.
"Because I saw him in the park. I know it was him because Nurse pointed him out and told me to stay away from such wicked men after I remarked on his smart appearance. Do say you will marry him, Chary, oh do!"
The mirror reflected Cecily: a beautiful blond girl with a perfect English complexion, yet there Charlotte stood, in stark contrast to her lovely sister. Mousy hair, plain features, and a perpetual squint because of her headaches. What would the darkly beautiful Lord Nicholas think when he met her?
She'd seen him from afar, a tall, lean man with dark hair and eyes, always turned out stylishly, but not in the foppish garb of other men. He preferred tailored coats and top-boots to silk breeches and buckled pumps. He possessed an air of bored indifference that she'd perceived to be real instead of the pretense of many fine bucks in London. She'd thought him a perfect portrayal of his reputation: cold and heartless.
And he intended to offer for her. She sighed. Gone were her dreams of finding a husband who appreciated books and music and ornithology, one of her favorite hobbies. Lord Nicholas was said to ride to the hounds, go shooting, practice pugilism at the clubs, and of course, gamble as well as seduce women. He had a terrible reputation as a rogue, and now as a thief.
It would be nearly impossible to find a more mismatched couple in England. He would expect a beauty or Incomparable as wife, and Charlotte fell far short of that mark. Well, she would not try to gild the lily, so to speak. No, she would wear her ugliest gown and present herself as she truly was. With luck, he would cry off and flee the house in pursuit of another, saving them both from years of unhappiness. She could only hope.
HAWKELY RANGED around the receiving room like a caged tiger, pacing the confines of its prison. It rankled that he'd yielded to his father's blackmail, but it had not been without certain concessions from the duke. Robert was even now preparing for a long stay in Spain at their mother's family home, far away from London's temptations. So now Nick stood in the overwrought St. John parlor, waiting to propose to a banker's daughter. Gilded furniture sat everywhere. Ornate frames held portraits of ancestors that all looked to be squint-eyed and dull. Gilt mirrors reflected opulent wallpaper and fresh flowers in winter. The room reeked of money and bad taste.
A rustle at the door claimed his attention, and he turned. Charles St. John greeted him cordially, and he found the man pleasant enough in a slightly effusive manner. Medium height, a bit stocky, with an excellently tailored coat and high, white cravat, St. John's fair complexion took on a mottled flush until finally he interrupted his monologue on the weather, the high price of wheat, Whigs, and Tories when his daughter was announced at the door.
"M'daughter, m'lord," he said with a slight stutter. "Charlotte. Come forward, child. Come and greet Lord Nicholas."
Steeling himself, Hawkely noted that his first assumption that the girl his father had chosen would be a plain thing, was quite correct. Brown hair had been pulled back from a high forehead in a severe style and tucked into a knot on the nape of her neck; pale-blue eyes lifted to his face when she rose from her brief curtsy. A pleasant face, but there was nothing remarkable about her.
Mr. St. John rambled on, "Charlotte is my oldest child. She's always been a joy to us, sweet and most agreeable, not at all contentious. She can read Greek and Latin, although I daresay she won't need that very much in life, and she's quite, quite knowledgeable about the most extraordinary things. Do tell his lordship about your interests, Chary."
"I doubt his lordship is interested in the nesting habits of tropical water fowl, Papa," she murmured with a wry glance at her father. At least her voice was well modulated and not the least bit strident. Better still, she did not pretend sophistication.
"On the contrary," Nick replied, amused despite himself. "I encountered varied species of water fowl in the Javanese islands while there. The blue-banded kingfisher is one of my favorites."
After a rather startled glance up at him, she nodded. "Indeed. They are noble birds."
"Noble? Much smaller than English kingfishers, you know. Lively little creatures, with burrows instead of nests."
"You must have made a rather lengthy study of them, Lord Nicholas."
Excerpted from "Mistletoe Magic"
Copyright © 2017 Virginia Brown.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.