A December with a Duke
By Collette Cameron
Looking for a Christmas story with a twist? Why not try DECEMBER WITH A DUKE!
He’s entirely the wrong sort of man. That’s what makes him so utterly right.
After a horrific marriage, widow Everleigh Chatterton is cynical and leery of men. She rarely ventures into society, and when she must, she barely speaks to them. Her one regret for refusing to marry again is that she’ll never bear children. As a favor to a friend, she reluctantly agrees to attend a Christmas house-party. Unfortunately, Griffin, Duke of Sheffield is also in attendance. Even though Everleigh has previously snubbed him, she can’t deny her attraction to the confident, darkly handsome duke.
For almost a year, Griffin has searched for the perfect duchess to help care for the orphan he’s taken on. He sets his sights on the exquisite, but unapproachable widow after her sweet interactions with the child impress him. Everleigh vows she’s not interested in him or any other man. But Griffin is convinced he can thaw her icy exterior and free the warm, passionate woman lurking behind the arctic facade. Only, as he pursues her, it’s his heart that’s transformed.
Can Everleigh learn to trust and love again? Will Griffin get his Christmas wish and make her his bride? Or, has he underestimated her wounds and fears and be forced to let her go?
09 December, 1809
Ridgewood Court, Essex England
A chorus of laughter spilled from the drawing room, the gaiety echoing down the gleaming marble-floored corridor. The jollity neither enticed Everleigh nor piqued her interest. A hand resting on the banister and her foot poised on the bottom riser, she slanted her head, listening.
That did not sound like the small, intimate gathering Theadosia, Duchess of Sutcliffe, had promised for the nearly month-long house party.
Only close friends and family had been invited, Thea had assured her when she cajoled Everleigh into staying at Ridgewood Court rather than going home to Fittledale Park each evening. Probably because she knew full well Everleigh wasn’t likely to return every day, if at all.
Thea had vowed there wouldn’t be a soul who would make Everleigh feel the least uncomfortable, nor any rapscallions inclined to pursue widowed heiresses almost four-and-twenty years of age.
Only eleven people had gathered for tea this afternoon. Afterward, the men—the Duke of Sutcliffe, three other peers of the realm (all dukes as well) and James Brentwood, Thea’s brother—had gone riding.
Not Everleigh’s definition of a cozy assembly. Two or three at most fit that description.
Nonetheless, the number was sufferable, for a few days at least. Especially since the other females included her cousins Ophelia and Gabriella Breckensole, as well as her step-niece Rayne Westbrook and Theadosia’s sister, Jessica. The other women planning to attend the house party would join them for dinner.
Who else had arrived while Everleigh napped the afternoon and early evening away in an attempt to ease the megrim still niggling around her temples?
Too much excitement—make that tension caused by her dread of gatherings—inevitably brought a headache on. A dose of powders and a lie-down in a darkened chamber with a cool, damp cloth across her eyes had reduced this one to a dull annoyance. Still, the minor throbbing provided a perfect excuse to retire early should the need arise.
Another burst of laughter erupted, this one mostly masculine chortles.
That boisterous din couldn’t be merely the five men from tea. Precisely how many upper crust chaps had been invited? The same number as females to balance the dinner table?
If so, that likely meant four more strutting peacocks. No doubt pampered and privileged gentlemen with nothing better or more meaningful to do with their time than fritter it away at a house party. Or, as experience had taught her, indulge in a dalliance or two or three for the party’s endurance.
How many times had she witnessed that very thing during the two miserable years she’d been wife to Arnold Chatterton? How many times had her depraved husband carried on with one shameless gillflurt or another whilst Everleigh barricaded herself in her bedchamber to escape the vile intentions of the other debauchees in attendance?
A shiver juddered across her shoulders, and she firmed her mouth and gave a little shake of her head.
Chatterton was dead.
He had been for almost two years.
He couldn’t hurt her anymore.
Neither could his son.
In any event, Theadosia, the daughter of a reverend, wouldn’t tolerate those sorts of shenanigans beneath her roof. But how was Thea to know who prowled about in the middle of the night, or what fiend might waylay and force themselves on an unsuspecting lady?
Would all the guests remain until Christmastide?
If so, Everleigh assuredly would not.
She enjoyed her solitude too much, hence her turreted bedchamber at Ridgewood, specifically selected for its privacy and isolation from the rest of the guests. Only two other bedchambers and the nursery lay in that wing—all blessedly unoccupied. At least they had been when she’d made her way to her room this afternoon.
She’d heard nothing on her way down to dinner to suggest otherwise.
Descending the last stair, she wrapped her lace shawl closer around her shoulders and weighed her options. She could return to her chamber and request a carriage to take her home. She didn’t much care that doing so would certainly advance her reputation for icy aloofness. But it would also hurt Theadosia’s feelings, and that Everleigh did care about.
A great deal, truth to tell.
Theadosia was one of the few people who hadn’t judged her, who had remained a true friend.
On the other hand, Everleigh could muster her courage and see who’d arrived and then decide whether to escape. Waylaying a footman and asking him to reel off the names of the guests probably wasn’t a good idea, though of the choices, it held the most appeal.
Confound Thea, the compassionate, meddling wretch, for her tender heart and her ongoing efforts to entice Everleigh into Society again. Drat Thea’s determination to help Everleigh overcome her fears and heal. And above all, a pox on her hints that Everleigh should consider allowing suitors to call upon her.
Even—God forbid!—contemplate marriage once more.
Didn’t she want children? Thea had asked kindly.
With all my heart.
But marry? Be leg-shackled again? Under a man’s thumb, and her every movement dictated?
Never. Ever. Again.
She refused to subject herself to le beau monde’s marriage mart or consider matrimony. Her experiences in those areas had proved intolerable, and she’d no wish to repeat them.
Some things one never recovered from, but unless a person had lived through that awfulness, they simply couldn’t understand, so Theadosia couldn’t be faulted for her efforts. Everleigh’s wounds mightn’t have been physical, but the scars on her soul had all but crippled her ability to feel.
Theadosia and Sutcliffe’s union was a love match. How could Thea possibly appreciate Everleigh’s aversion to marriage?
Or her immense dislike of December?
How she loathed the month.
She’d first met the aging banker, Arnold Chatterton, and his son Frederick, at a Christmastide ball four years ago. After following her about and generally making a nuisance of himself the better part of the evening, Frederick had come upon her unawares when she’d naively stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. He’d dragged her into the hothouse and forced himself upon her.
Then the sod had bragged to his father about his conquest, destroying any hope she had of salvaging her reputation by keeping silent about the despoiling. Seems deflowering innocents was a perverse game with them.
Arnold, the old reprobate, seized his chance to gain a young wife, and offered her marriage and a settlement to keep the tale quiet. She’d refused at first, but in February, she’d wed him. Seven months later, she gave birth to a darling baby girl, only to lose precious Meredith a fortnight before Christmas that same year.
Arnold still insisted she host all manner of reprobates and degenerates for the Yuletide holiday then and the year afterward as well. In all that time, she didn’t see her cousins or friends for fear they’d meet the same fate she had at either Arnold or Frederick’s hands.
But after Meredith died, Everleigh wrote her mother and confessed all. She’d written Ophelia, Gabriella, and Theadosia too, bribing a sympathetic milliner with a pair of kid gloves to post the letters for her.
That January, Arnold and Frederick, two drunken sots on their way home from whatever foul company they’d kept that evening, had been robbed and shot multiple times. They’d both died.
She hadn’t cried a single tear.
Nor did she smile when the will was read, and as Chatterton’s closest living kin, she was left his entire fortune. She’d give it all up, every last penny, if Meredith had lived.
Mama too. She’d died from consumption in March of that awful year.
“Mrs. Chatterton, are you lost? May I direct you to the drawing room?”
She started and clutched a hand to the base of her throat, her pulse jumping against her fingertips. A familiar surge of fear-induced adrenaline zipped through her veins. She’d been so lost in her reverie she hadn’t heard the blond Adonis masquerading as a footman approach.
He smiled, male appreciation gleaming in his eyes.
That look she knew well. She didn’t recognize him from her other visits. He must be new to his profession, else he’d have learned to conceal his inclinations better.
“I am Hampton.” He splayed a snowy while glove against his puffed-out chest. “May I be of service?”
The way he lowered his voice when he said service, suggested he offered her something other than directions.
She shook her head, skewing her lips downward slightly at her subdued cream gown, trimmed in black and pansy. Perhaps she should’ve worn the violet bombazine. That frock boasted a higher bodice and didn’t flatter her coloring as much this one did.
“I was just erecting my ramparts and fortifying my buttresses before entering the fray.”
“You’re wrecking . . . what?”
His handsome face contorted in puzzlement.
Hampton might possess a god’s physique and sculpted facial features, but the gorgeous chap was dumb as mud.
“Never mind.” She gathered her skirts whilst pointing down the passageway. “It’s along there. Third door. Right?”
“No, the drawing room is on the left, Mrs. Chatterton.”
Because there aren’t any doorways on the right side, featherbrain.
She was hard put not to gape at his obtuseness.
“I would be happy to escort you.” Another rakish smile lit his features.
On second thought, mud might shine brighter than this fellow.
Exasperated by his forwardness, she arched a starchy brow.
“There’s no need. I’ve been here before, and I’m certain you’ve duties to attend to. I shan’t keep you from them.”
There. She’d just reminded him of his position, and if he wanted to keep it, he’d best stop playing the flirt. Next time, she’d report him to Theadosia. Unlike Everleigh’s deceased husband and his philandering cohorts, she didn’t dally with servants.
Looking somewhat like a rambunctious puppy who been scolded for nipping too hard, Hampton inclined his head, and she swept past him.
Bolstering her lagging courage, and with shoulders as rigid as the marble her black silk slippers swished upon with each step she took, she marched toward the drawing room. She’d rather know now whether she’d need to give her regrets to Theadosia and depart for home.
At the doorway, she pressed a palm to her roiling stomach, shut her eyes, and drew in a long, steadying breath.
Compose yourself, Everleigh Lucy Katherine Chatterton.
She swallowed, forced her eyelids open, and formed her mouth into a self-possessed smile, assuming the cool, standoffish mien that had served her well as a buffer these past four years.
Damn Arnold Chatterton and his evil spawn for turning her into this creature, hiding her fear behind Arctic reserve.
A few steps into the room, she halted, and the smile curving her lips became brittle.
Thirty or more people attired in evening finery occupied the chairs and settees, as well as every nook and corner. Panic clawed its way up her throat, stealing her breath, and restricting her lungs.
This was a mistake.
She shouldn’t have come. Not just to dinner, but to Ridgewood Court.
How could she have failed to consider the guests living within a reasonable carriage journey?
Too late to turn tail and run now.
Or was it?
Long ago, she’d ceased caring what people thought of her; when she’d been accused of marrying Arnold Chatterton for his immense wealth. Ridiculed for doing so, given his reputation for whore-mongering and other more abhorrent habits. Scorned and shunned because of the vulgar company he kept. Yet those same elitist hypocrites skulked into his bank for loans on a regular basis.
She’d held her head high and never let on how the whispers, cutting looks, and judgments wore away at what little self-respect she had left.
They didn’t know the truth of it.
Most people still didn’t, and it would remain that way.
She scanned the room again, noting a few more friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. Not all strangers then. This might be bearable. While married, she’d managed larger, much more raucous crowds many times with no lasting ill effects.
Save her nerves wrought ragged for a week afterward.
Which was one reason she avoided large assemblies.
Her attention snared on a dark-eyed man towering above the others, and his well-formed mouth slid upward a fraction as he acknowledged her regard.
Bother and blast.
The disturbing Duke of Sheffield.
Expression bland, she forced her gaze away even as her stomach toppled over itself in the unnerving manner it did when she sensed a man desired her. Other women might be flattered, possibly encourage the beau’s interest.
Not she, by juniper.
On a night not so very different than this, just such a man had ruined her. Destroyed her life. Stolen her future.
Oh, she could feign politesse when necessary, but for the most part, she avoided men, trusting few other than James Brentwood and Victor, the Duke of Sutcliffe.
Mouth firmed, she took in the others present, aware that Sheffield’s keen focus never left her. With a little start, she realized her skin didn’t crawl with the knowledge. She hadn’t considered he’d be here. She ought to have. After all, he’d been at Theadosia and Sutcliffe’s wedding ball.
She dared a covert peek at him.
Eyes hooded, he still stared, but not menacingly.
No, if anything, she’d say he appeared intrigued.
Hadn’t she made it clear that night she’d no interest in him?
Or any man for that matter.
Which is exactly what she’d said to him when he’d asked her to dance for a third time at the ball. Surely, he must’ve known doing so was outside the bounds.
Or, perchance, he was as dense as mud too. Must be an inherent characteristic of immensely good-looking men. Beauty and brawn but a distinct shortage of brains.
Ironic that beautiful women were often accused of being flighty and lacking in intelligence, when she’d met an equal number of men who fit that description.
A moment later, her cousins, Theadosia, and Rayne glided up to her, their troubled gazes a contrast to the welcoming smiles framing their mouths. They formed a protective semi-circle around her, their bearing guarded.
Her nape hair raised.
Her protectors were in full defensive mode.
“Everleigh, don’t tell me you’re still in half-mourning? It’s been almost two years since Father Chatterton and Frederick died. Your . . . devotion is touching.”
Caroline’s high-pitched sarcastic drawl rose above the quiet murmuring, succeeding in doing what Frederick’s widow intended: drawing every eye to Everleigh.
Mortification fixed her to the Aubusson carpet.
How many of those staring knew her secret shame?
Humiliation burgeoned from her middle, sweeping up her chest and neck, and infused her face with heat.
Swathed in a shockingly immodest carmine-colored gown, Caroline’s abundant bosoms were on full display. She lifted a sherry glass to her rouged, smirking lips as she stepped from the shadows where spiders and centipedes and other unpleasant creepy crawlies were wont to loiter.
Some nerve she had pretending any affection for Arnold. Father Chatterton, indeed. Not once had she addressed her father-in-law half so kindly.
Features stern and expression steely, the Duke of Sheffield folded his arms, and leaning one broad shoulder against the doorframe leading to the music room, regarded Caroline with the same distaste as one might warm elephant dung between one’s toes.
Theadosia jutted her chin toward Caroline the merest bit.
At once, her sister Jessica and brother James shifted to block Caroline’s view. The Dowager Duchess of Sutcliffe followed their lead, and with the distinguished banker, Jerome DuBoise, in tow, she also took to the field like a general leading the troops and commandeered Caroline’s attention.
Known for flaunting Society’s rules, even Caroline didn’t dare insult her host’s powerful mother and continue targeting Everleigh.
Childless and older than Everleigh by fourteen years, Caroline most certainly wasn’t grieving. No, she’d tossed off mourning weeds a mere six months after her husband’s ill-timed death. The only person who’d loathed Frederick Chatterton more than Everleigh had stood across the room enjoying the drama she’d stirred.
“Ignore that witch.” Ophelia’s overly bright smile belied her clipped words. “She’s still furious you inherited everything.”
That wasn’t the only reason Caroline despised Everleigh. Few knew why save those standing around her now and Nicolette Twistleton who speared Caroline a lethal glance as Nicolette wended her way toward them.
Frederick had delighted in boasting to his wife that he’d sired a child with Everleigh whilst Caroline remained barren after sixteen years of marriage. His cruelty inflamed her hatred of Everleigh, and she made a point to bare her needle-sharp claws and draw blood at every opportunity. Given they’d lived in the same house until Chatterton died, life had been hellish day in and day out.
Only Rayne’s presence had made living at Keighsdon Hall bearable.
“Why is Caroline here?”
With an expert flick of her wrist, Everleigh splayed her hand-painted lace fan. She cut Theadosia a side-long look. Had she known in advance, her friend would’ve told her—warned her. Of that, Everleigh had no doubt.
“Surely you understand I cannot stay if she remains, Thea,” Everleigh said.
Theadosia presented her back to the drawing room’s occupants.
“She arrived with the Moffettes,” Thea said, with an apologetic grimace. “I’d forgotten they’re distant relations to her, on her mother’s side, I believe. They’re mortified she imposed upon us. Mr. Moffette admitted he considered trussing her like a goose and stuffing her in the larder when they left, and Mrs. Moffette all but told Caroline she wasn’t welcome, but the daft woman paid her no mind.”
Probably because she’d anticipated seeing Everleigh and couldn’t resist inflicting more wounds.
Known for her pleasant temperament, Theadosia pinched her lips together and a slight scowl wrinkled her forehead. “Given her reputation for histrionics, I feared she might say things better left unsaid and cause an ugly scene if I insisted she leave at once.”
“Since Uncle Frederick died, she’s been hopping from relation to relation, like a starving flea looking for an ever-fatter dog.” Rayne made a rude noise and wrinkled her nose. “She wears her welcome out in a hurry.”
Arnold’s ward, and a welcome ally against the Chattertons, Rayne had soon become like a sister to Everleigh. After his death, it was only natural the two continue to live together, but at Fittledale Park, the pleasant estate Everleigh purchased outside Colchester. That other house, where she’d experienced nothing but misery, was sold and the monies donated to a children’s home.
Caroline had nearly had an apoplectic fit when Everleigh turned her out. Not penniless, as she deserved—and claimed to all who would listen—however. She’d blown through the five thousand pounds in short order, sold the modest but comfortable house in Kent Everleigh had gifted her, and, henceforth, relied upon the goodwill and generosity of her numerous kind-hearted relatives.
“Thank goodness the Moffettes are off to their daughter’s to spend the holiday with their first grandchild.” Gabriella’s hazel eyes rounded in distress, and she sliced a glance over her shoulder. “She won’t stay on when they leave, will she?”
“Only an utterly gauche bacon-brain would do so.” Ophelia—an exact replica of her sister tonight, except she wore the palest blue gown and Gabriella the softest green—also slid Caroline a covert peek.
Nicolette edged nearer, murmuring, “That sounds precisely like something Caroline Chatterton would do. I’m not above shoving her in the lake and hoping she catches lung fever.”
Everleigh laid her hand on Theadosia’s forearm. “Forgive me, but I’m afraid I’m off as soon as my carriage is readied. I shan’t subject myself to that woman’s animosity. Two years of her enmity was more than enough.”
“No. Please don’t go.” Theadosia shook her head, her strawberry blonde hair glinting gold in the candlelight. “You are one of my dearest friends, and I so want you to celebrate Christmastide and Twelfth Night with us.”
“And your birthday too,” Gabriella said, slipping an arm around Everleigh’s waist.
Everleigh had hoped thirty-one December might pass without marking her four-and-twentieth birthday.
“Besides, do you have any idea how hard it was to convince Grandfather and Grandmother to allow us stay at Ridgewood for weeks?” Eyes wide, Gabriella bobbled her head in a silly fashion and grinned at her twin. “When we live but four miles away?”
Ophelia chuckled as she adjusted her glove on her arm. “That did indeed take a great deal of finagling, and they only permitted it if you act as our chaperone. Else we’ll have to go home and miss part of the festivities. Grandmama and Grandpapa are ever so stuffy. Why, they snuff the candles at precisely nine o’clock every night.”
They’d lived with their paternal grandparents since their parents had died of typhoid when they were five. A widow, Everleigh’s mother didn’t think she could provide for them, nor was their room in their modest cottage. Still, the girls had visited one another often.
“Everleigh, you deserve some joy and happiness,” Nicolette said, and the others agreed with overly bright, encouraging smiles and nods.
“I shall make it clear to Caroline she is not invited for the duration. I don’t care if that’s unchristian or impolite. She’s just mean-spirited and will put a damper on the house party.” Theadosia regally inclined her head toward the butler.
Grover acknowledged the sign with an equally noble dip of his chin before leaving the room.
Everleigh must’ve been the last to arrive downstairs. Now dinner could be served.
Theadosia touched Everleigh’s elbow. “I understand if you’d rather a tray were brought to your room tonight, but please don’t leave. I have ever so many wonderful things planned for the yuletide. I don’t want you to spend it alone again and . . .”
She glanced round the circle of women, then took Everleigh’s hand in both of hers. “And . . . we know what day tomorrow is, dearest.”
The day Meredith had died.
Tears blurred Everleigh’s vision, and she dropped her gaze to her hand clutching the fan.
“I shouldn’t have come. I’ll only dampen everyone’s spirits with my doldrums.”
“Nonsense, darling.” Nicolette hugged Everleigh. “We only all agreed to inundate Thea and Sutcliffe for weeks because we care so much for you.”
Despite her shameful past, her friends loved her. “Thank you, but I’m just not—”
A child’s frightened voice called out.
Everleigh, along with her friends, swung their heads toward the doorway.
“Papa?” Sobbing echoed in the corridor.
“I want my Pa-pa!”