Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Abbey is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year…
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The Last Chance Christmas Ball
By Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All rights reserved.
My True Love Hath My Heart
December 24, Christmas Eve
He watched her emerge from the servants' stairs into the hall, a neat, straight, slender figure in a dark dress and white apron. He'd known she would come. He'd been waiting for her — not patiently, but with his blood pumping in anticipation.
Nick Lafford stood at the window at the end of the corridor, backed by the light. A good place to observe and remain unobserved. When he saw the door open, before Claire — his Claire — stepped into the hall, he turned toward the window as if he were interested in the scene outside. He hid his face.
It was midmorning with a gray sky and heavy snow falling. A carriage, emptied of its visitors, was being driven around to the stables. Nothing else moved in the landscape of outbuildings.
She'd notice him as she headed down the hall — the outline of a man looking out at the weather — but she wouldn't recognize him. She didn't know he was at Holbourne Abbey. She'd dismiss him as another well-tailored guest here at Holbourne Abbey for the house party. A friend of Edward's maybe, the right age to be a soldier, newly discharged.
She was dressed as an upstairs maid, neat and proper and trying to be prim. If he wanted to be picky about it, her clothing was a little too fine, the fabric too expensive for a servant to wear at work. Her mobcap trailed a pair of long flirty ribbons at the back. That was vanity on her part and he loved her for it.
A plump older maid, a brown hen of a woman, bustled along the hall ahead of her, all good humor, chattering. Claire followed with the air of a sleek cat that had somehow been adopted into a family of chickens. She carried clean towels and a jug of water. She'd stuck a white dusting cloth into the waistband of her apron. That would be an indictable offense among housemaids, he imagined. The housekeeper would scold her if she got caught.
She was jaunty and intent, thoroughly herself in her borrowed persona. Even the mobcap perched on her head in an impudent, Claire way. If she'd been walking down Bond Street dressed as she should be in one of her flowing, jewel-colored frocks, heads would turn when she passed. Female heads, envious and a little disapproving. Male heads, in admiration.
When she and the other maid had gone inside Gower's room, Nick stayed where he was, watching the door, being ordinary. Just another guest here to enjoy the festivities of Christmas Eve.
But he and Claire weren't ordinary. They were both outsiders. A little dangerous sometimes. Disingenuous at best, downright liars at worst. They were made for each other.
Claire followed Anna down the hall. The housekeeper sent the maids out two by two when they went to set the rooms in order. She'd paired the newly hired London maid with plump, good-natured Anna, who knew the foibles and secrets of all the guests and didn't mind sharing them.
Anna turned the knob and pushed the door open with her hip. They were in Gower's bedroom at last. This was the Red Room, with walls the color of aged burgundy wine and fierce, masculine hunting scenes in the pictures. The bronze figures on the mantelpiece were, on the left, Mercury in a hurry and, on the right, some unhappy Celt with an arrow in his thigh. Maybe Gower was given this room in the hope it would shorten his stay.
"A fine-looking gentleman." Anna was looking back at the door. "Interested in ye, I think."
"Who?" Her mind wasn't on the burning question of fine-looking gentlemen. She was planning how to rifle the room.
"The gentleman in the hall. He was sneaking a peek, I think. Ye have an admirer. More what ye be used to dealing with, I imagine."
There it was again. Everyone from the butler to the scullery maid knew she wasn't what she pretended to be. She might fool the guests, but the servants had figured it out before she'd been in the house an hour. They played along, but she hadn't fooled them one jot.
She could hardly ask what mistakes she made.
Feeling baffled, she tossed pillows off the bed and stripped down the sheets, airing them out for a minute before they remade the bed. She said, "I've given up men altogether," which was true enough.
"Ye'll be one of the few. We'll have some fine old giggling and bussing tonight, now they've hung the kissing bough in the kitchen door. Them valets up from the south are a cheeky lot."
Gower had tumbled his bedclothes off the bed on both sides. Be nice to think that was a night tussling with a guilty conscience. Probably a restless night after gorging himself at the table.
Gower's daughter, who had the Rose Room down the hall, left barely a dent on her pillow. She must lie still as a doll all night long. The daughter had brought dozens of expensive dresses, but not one single jewel. Only two empty jewel cases.
So many secrets a maidservant discovered. She'd had no idea.
Anna continued talking, ending up with, "He'd warm a bed on a cold night, that one. Fine figure of a man, don't ye think?"
It was a measure of how little she'd been paying attention that she had to say, "Who?"
"Bless ye, child, no. The man watching you in the hall. Something familiar about him I canna put my finger on, but he looked a proper gentleman."
"I didn't notice." There was only one man she was remotely interested in and he was in Paris. Or Lyon or St. Petersburg. Wherever the Foreign Office needed someone to pull chestnuts out of a fire. He was far away, in any case, and she didn't care in the least.
Redoing the bed came next, before she dusted. There were orders of precedence in the cleaning of a room, as strictly kept as any royal processional.
"Hold a twitch while I scrub. I'm that mucky from tending fires." Anna plunged her hands in the water bucket up to the elbow. "There was a time I would 'uv spared a glance for a man like that. A glance and mayhap a smile."
"I will bob a curtsey at him if the chance presents itself." She'd practiced her curtseys. She was proud of them.
They pulled the sheets and blankets back up the length of the bed. Smoothed and retucked everything, layer by layer. The coverlet came last. "Grab the corner, dearie," Anna said, "and up we go. What was I talking about?"
"Kissing, I think. You were in favor of it."
"Aye. I wouldna have done anything, mind you," Anna said. "I was more than happy with my John William all those years. But a girl should look. The good Lord made men to be appreciated."
"I'll make a point of looking him over if he's still in the hall when I leave." But she wouldn't. She'd only just shaken herself free of one wellborn, arrogant, son-of-a-bitch aristocrat. She had no intention of acquiring another.
"Ye do that, love." Anna went back to mending the fire.
As duties were divided, the other maid's part — her part — was to chase dust. So she ran a damp cloth over every surface, looking into all the corners as she went. She didn't expect any useful revelations. Gower wouldn't hide the Coeur de Flamme anywhere a maid dusted. He wouldn't hide it among his clothing in the tallboy. His valet would sort through that and Gower wasn't the man to trust his valet.
Nick would have searched this room foot by foot, painstakingly, meticulously. He'd have gone flat on his belly, peering and prying underneath that tallboy and that dresser and the desk. Nick would —
She had no intention of thinking about what Nick would do.
She opened the window and shook her cloth out in the falling snow. It would be hard to get out of this window using a rope ladder. Someone skilled or desperate might try it.
Anna leaned back on her heels to admire her work with the fire. She gave the tiles of the surround one last loving swipe. "Neat as ninepence."
Close the window. Set the latch. "Why ninepence, I wonder? Is a sixpence less tidy? Are shillings sluttish?"
"Wouldn't surprise me." Anna shot her one of those sidewise looks that meant, "You are odd as a three-legged cow," and stood, one hand pressed to her back, huffing out a little sigh of relief. "I'll leave ye to the dusting, then, and be off to see if Miss Effington has pried herself upright this fine morning." She collected her brushes and scooped dirty towels from the floor. "It's a wonder rich folk don't get bored, lying abed till the day's half done. And on Christmas Eve, too. If you ask me, the gentry don't have half the fun we do downstairs."
She was one of the rich folk, she supposed. Her shops brought in more income than most estates. Trading jewels in Antwerp was even more profitable. But every day of her life she'd been up with the sun. When she was young, it had been to grind coffee, keep order among the apprentices, prepare the shop for opening. Her grandmother kept old-fashioned ways. Nowadays waking early let her catch the sunlight for her work. She matched jewels by natural light, always.
"No accounting for gentlefolk. Kittle cattle." Anna wended her way with a click and clink of her pail. She left behind the privacy nefarious deeds require.
"All mine," Claire whispered, turning in a circle. Was there anything more satisfying than being solitary in a room you planned to poke about in?
She pulled out drawers and opened glove boxes to her heart's content. Studied Gower's collection of poorly cut rings and shirt buttons in the flat box in the top drawer. On top of the oak wardrobe, a hatbox with a hat in it. Opening the doors, she found boots standing in a row along the front. Behind that, a stack of hand luggage and boxes.
Promising. Promising. A riding crop on top. Under that, a gentleman's traveling kit with recesses for comb, brush, scissors, soap, razor. Most of that was laid out on the washstand. Next down. A portable writing desk. Ink, quills, sealing wax, and blank paper. A ledger that was coy about the accounts. She'd cut her teeth on account books and recognized shady dealing when she saw it. A hidden drawer — all of these writing desks had a hidden drawer — full of banknotes.
Fascinating though this glimpse into Mr. Gower's mind might be, it wasn't what she wanted.
The next box down was ... the kindest word was "unlovely." The workmanship was poor and the proportions ill-chosen. But the contents rattled and shifted when she picked it up.
And finally she'd come to something that was locked. Oh good.
She set it on a shelf at eye level and went to work with her bent probes. Even an amateur — she was happy to consider herself an amateur in the craft of lock picking — needed only a handful of minutes to get it open. In more exigent circumstances she could have broken the box apart with a rock. Or pried the lid up with a kitchen knife. Or tucked the whole thing under her arm and walked away with it. Obviously, in the life of a housemaid the opportunities for theft were endless.
The lock turned.
Behold jewelry. Here was a tray holding a dozen jewel cases, each about the size of her palm. Florentine leather, blue and green. She lifted out the tray and found a melee of gold and bright jewels tossed together haphazardly.
Gower kept his daughter's baubles locked away in his room, hidden in the bottom of the wardrobe. Why? It looked as if he'd emptied the contents of two or three jewelry boxes in here and carted it off. A monkey trove of treasure, with a monkey's feckless disregard for scratched pearls or dented gold.
There'd be a mean-spirited story behind this. A fight between father and daughter. Punishment? She could almost feel sorry for the woman.
She ran her fingers through bracelets and tangled necklaces and felt the shapes in the small velvet bags. She couldn't help thinking the stones were ill-suited to the daughter's pretty fairness. She priced as she fingered through — this was her business, after all. Thirty guineas for that sapphire bracelet. A fussy design and the stones were poorly matched. Forty for the topaz pendant. This huge broach should be broken down for the stones because it was hideous.
The Coeur wasn't in this angry jumble. Gower, who tossed fragile pearls and brittle jade into that clinking chaos, probably kept his diamond cushioned safe in one of these pretty leather cases. A diamond that was almost impossible to damage.
The upper tray, then. The first leather case held a ruby necklace. Very nice. The second case was lighter. She —
"I always wondered what housemaids did in their leisure time." The voice came from the door. "Theft, apparently."
There was an instant like lightning — filled with a flash of recognition in the midst of blank surprise. She recognized him at once. How could she not? Nobody else spoke like silk over steel. Like honey and granite rock. Rough with laughter, sarcastic over the card table, whispered across a pillow — that was not a voice one forgot. She turned slowly to face him.
Nick Lafford stood in the doorway, a man not taking his dismissal seriously. She was furious with him. She was impatient and unforgiving. And everything inside her, heart, mind, and spirit was glad to see him.
He closed the door behind him and strolled into the room. Time flowed sluggishly around him, giving her a long opportunity to feel five or six emotions in a row, all of them complicated and contradictory.
"Picture of a maid dusting the jewelry," he said. "How thorough of you."
"Searching it, actually."
"We rise above the banal, then. I always enjoy rising about the banal with you." He came to look past her into the box on the wardrobe shelf. "We have the very likeness of plunder. I feel quite piratical. Is it immensely valuable?"
"Not so far." She closed the leather case with the rubies and put it firmly back in the tray. "If they were vegetables, this would largely be a pile of potatoes."
"Not counting the Coeur de Flamme." Nick wore one of his deceptively open expressions.
"Not counting the Coeur, which I haven't found yet. What in the name of sanity are you doing here?"
"I appear to have joined you in ransacking with intent. Embarrassing if I'm caught at it." He leaned to look into the jewel box and they touched, just a little. A brush of his jacket on her shoulder. A feeling of warmth at her side. Nothing really.
He said, "I'll bet these dainty little boxes contain the good stuff."
"Almost certainly. Go away, Nick."
"I don't think so. You may, eventually, be glad I'm here." He stirred a finger into the jewels, inquisitive. "Or, of course, you may not. But I'm here anyway."
This was so typical of him. Ready to filch jewels at her side or lead her onto the dance floor in Vienna in front of the assembled nobility of Europe. Once, he'd helped her relocate an inconvenient body. Once —
Blast him for being Nicholas. For being sneaky and single-minded and never giving up. For being clever enough to move her like a chess piece to this time and this place. For saying he loved her.
Blast her for being happy to see him again, even for a minute.
She squashed down the anticipation and gladness that was springing up inside her like so many bubbles rising to the top of beer. She concentrated on being stern. He'd taken her by surprise. That was all. Nothing had changed.
He hooked up entangled necklaces and bracelets and let them dangle. "What a hoard for a man to lug about the north country. They almost beg to be stolen, don't they?"
"I hear their siren call. 'Pick me up and carry me away,' they say. Surely he won't miss a few."
"I'm busy, Nick. I don't have time for this."
"And we're not thieves, like the regrettable Mr. Gower." When she didn't comment he said, "The money doesn't matter, does it? He didn't just cheat you out of money. He stole your work. He tried to steal your good name."
Nick understood. That was what made him so insidious. He'd always understood her.
She batted his hand out of the way and picked up the next leather case. "You contrived this. It's not some cosmic mischance."
"Humbly, I admit it. I arranged for a guest list to the house party to land in the papers. You saw it. You're here."
"I should have been suspicious."
"I'm delighted you weren't. It means you're here." He gestured a circle, taking in the jewels, the rest of the room, Holbourne Abbey, and Northumberland. "Instead of breaking into Gower's town house. He keeps guards. With guns."
"Guns in his garden and the unbreakable safe he brags about. I hope someone robs it one fine evening, but it won't be me. Damn you for interfering."
"I can't help myself, you know. Indulged from childhood. No self-discipline."
He hadn't changed a whit in the months since she'd sent him away. Still the perfect English aristocrat, casually confident, wrapped in the armor of first-class tailoring. Still the long, intelligent, handsome face that didn't show a tenth of what he was thinking. Brown hair in fashionable disorder. Brown eyes carefully controlled in what they revealed.
She said, "I don't have time to chatter with you. Anybody could walk in."
"The door's locked. You don't think I neglected to steal a key." He reached past her and selected a leather jewel case, flicked it open, and found emeralds. "This is nice."
Excerpted from The Last Chance Christmas Ball by Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverly. Copyright © 2015 Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue Jo Beverley,
My True Love Hath My Heart Joanna Bourne,
A Scottish Carol Susan King,
Christmas Larks Patricia Rice,
In the Bleak Midwinter Mary Jo Putney,
Old Flames Dance Cara Elliott,
A Season for Marriage Nicola Cornick,
Miss Finch and the Angel Jo Beverley,
Mistletoe Kisses Anne Gracie,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Usually n anthologies, there are 1 or 2 stories which are very good, 1 or 2 not so good, and the rest mediocre. Not in this case. I really enjoyed each story. The characters were wonderful, and some of the characters made brief appearances across the different story lines. This book was a wonderful Christmas read.
I really enjoyed most of these short stories. The first few were a bit hard for me to get into. When I got to about the fourth story or so they got better and I enjoyed them more. All very sweet with wonderful characters.
The Word Wenches have created an outstanding series of stories.
A second chance at love... Childhood friends become lovers... Childhood sweethearts reunited... Spouses reconnecting... Strangers finding love... You can't go wrong with this anthology! It covers almost all the different types of storylines that you might want to find in a romance story. I loved how even though the stories were all written by different authors, they were all connected to the Christmas Ball that was taking place. You even have the characters crossing over into each others stories. I really hope that they decided to do it again as I throughly enjoyed the whole book! Thanks go out to Kensington Books via NetGalley for a copy of the book in exchange of an honest review.
The Last Chance Christmas Ball, an anthology by eight award-winning romance authors, is a wonderful addition to any romance reader's shelf. A prologue and eight interwoven novellas (read them in oder) capture the spirit of the season, as well as invite the reader into the lives of memorable characters. Heartaches turn heartwarming under the machinations of matchmaker Lady Holly and the extended family and guests who are invited to her (50th!) Last Chance Christmas Ball. bA delightful and memorable read. Highly recommended.
Such a sweet holiday collection! Again, I find myself almost wishing for the "S" word. At the very least I'm in the mood for a little decorating... The stories of The Last Chance Christmas Ball--they're definitely stories and not novellas, and are perfect for squeezing in during a busy holiday season--all center around Lady Holly's fiftieth Christmas Ball, dubbed "last chance" because she's hoping to accomplish some matchmaking for a few guests before they give up entirely and move on to other (non-matrimonial, and in her eyes, lesser) pursuits. Although a couple and a half never actually make it to the festivities... ;) There honestly wasn't a thing I didn't like about this collection. The stories blended together nicely, many of them giving quick glimpses into what was going on behind the scenes in others as they did so. Each and every character was easy to root for, and it wasn't hard to believe that every one of couples might find their HEA thanks to the festivities. (Or the snowstorm raging outside...) Overall this was a pleasant way to start the holiday season, and a great introduction to some previously new-to-me authors who will definitely make it onto my TBR in the near future. Rating: 4 stars / A- I received a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.
An eight story anthology that is introduced with a lovely prologue that introduces the hostess, Lady Howard and her lady’s companion Clio set the tone for this collection. Each story brings a couple who are deserving of their own last chance at happiness. From reunited lovers separated by circumstance, second chances at romance and possibilities for new lives far different from initially anticipated, each story has a moment of “ooh’ with it. As with all collections, I have my favorite characters and scenes, although Clio and her catching the eye of the Duke was particularly satisfying, as was Kim and Roxie’s story so long delayed by his injuries and fear of not being wanted after the war. There is something for every historic romance fan in this anthology, whether read in one sitting or over several ‘getaway’ moments when the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is wearing thin. I received an eArc copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
The awesomely talented authors of the Word Wenches writing team has returned with a new holiday anthology that is guaranteed to please...the stories all run through with the common thread of each author's individual (and combined)character interactions both leading up to and during the social event of the year! Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley, Joanna Bourne, Patricia Rice, Nicola Cornick, Cara Elliott, Anne Gracie and Susan King make up this fine association of women! It is the 50th "Last Chance Ball", this wondrous holiday event that takes place on December 28th each year and is dubbed by many (including) Lady Holly, aka Dowager Countess of Holbourne. Lady Holly has been hosting this ball for 50 years in her home and she is determined that this year's event will go out with a bang! A most coveted invitation you will not find anywhere..although Lady Holly has reasons all her own and certain recipients of her own "personally" penned invitations will find themselves torn between being ecstatic or wary, as it is no secret that the Lady of the manor has ulterior motives! Family has many connotations in this story as Lady Holly's love for her "family" spreads far and wide! Getting to know these characters and the story behind them is a treat not to be missed! The essence of the holiday season surely shines through.
Oh this read was so much fun! All the stories take place during the Christmas season at Holbourne Hall, each one a wonderful historical romance. Plenty of drama and romance fill the pages as we learn the fate of each hero and heroine. Great Read!
The Last Chance Christmas Ball by 8 Authors Eight Authors managed to write seamlessly creating this wonderful Christmas anthology! One ball but eight different couples who have been invited will find their happily ever after whether or not they manage to attend. My True Love Hath My Heart by Joanna Bourne: Nick and Claire find themselves in Holbourne Abbey after some time apart but that time apart has not seen them lose their edge and ability to work together for a common purpose. A Scottish Carol by Susan King: Henry and Clarinda were once more than acquaintances – a snowstorm allows them to rekindle their friendship and possibly more. Christmas Larks by Patricia Rice: Patricia Rice I one of my favorite authors and this short story was everything that I hoped it would be. Ivo has returned to his childhood home with a bad case of PTSD and a concussion. His old friend Sarah Jane finds him in need and provides nursing care for him. Talking mice – maybe – more than one person hears them through the walls. This story had me smiling and happy and might have been my favorite. In the Bleak Winter by Mary Jo Putney: Kim and Roxie were once betrothed but Kim feels his wounds have made him unable to marry after all. Will Roxie be able to counter his objections and find a way back into his arms? Old Flames Dance by Cara Elliott: Lily and Edward were separated ten years before but never have forgotten one another. They will meet again at the ball. How will the years have changed them? Might they have a future together? A Season of Marriage by Nicola Cornick: Caroline and Piers have been married less than a year and are facing marital difficulties. Will they be able to deal with their issues and do so in a positive manner? Miss Finch and the Angel by Jo Beverly: Miss Finch was introduced in the Prologue and I knew her story would eventually be told. The telling of Clio and Gabrielle’s story is somewhat deeper than the rest but oh so much fun! Mistletoe Kisses by Anne Gracie: Last but not least is the story of a carriage crash and the stranding of Lucilla and John at Alice’s home. The fun they have, the time they share and the ultimate ending of their story were a great way to tie all of these stories up in a pretty bow. Thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books for the copy of this book to read and review. Five Stars
Anthology reads are my favorites. For a person who reads a lot these collections give a chance to try out new authors, read great stories and experience a variety of emotions and scenarios. The Last Chance Christmas Ball allows you to experience the glitz, glamour and anxious anticipation of the holiday season. One event, five authors, five well written stories of hope, second chances, surprises and enchanting adventures. The round robin concept is a great idea because it gives each writer the chance to put their own spin or voice to the read. Loved and would recommend this charming collection. I received an ARC of The last Chance Ball in exchange for an honest review.