Authors: Jacki Delecki
Tags: #Regency romance, #Mystery, #Espionage, #Historical Romance
A Christmas Code
Lady Gwyneth Beaumont has long awaited the opportunity to show Viscount James Ashworth that she is no longer the impetuous child who dogged his footsteps. Now a much sought-after debutante, she is determined to prove to the hard-headed rake that she is a grown woman and a worthy participant in both the spy game and the game of love.
Ash, recently returned from three years undercover in France in His Majesty’s service, wants nothing more than to complete his final mission and retire to his bucolic country estate. However, what seemed a simple assignment to protect the Prince Regent at a Christmas party turns into a maze of intrigue, desire, and treachery.
Adding to the perilous secret operation is one problem Ash never anticipated: The appearance of the reckless, enticing Gwyneth, who has blossomed into a gorgeous woman and self-appointed spy. When a snooping Gwyneth uncovers a shocking secret, she puts herself in mortal danger.
Can Ash protect Gwyneth and the Prince from French assailants and, at the same time, win the passionate lady’s heart?
Can Ash and Gwyneth both triumph as winners in the game of spies and love?
A Christmas Code
Copyright © 2014 by Jacki Delecki
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, locales, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
Published by Doe Bay Publishing, Seattle, Washington
Cover Art by The Killion Group
Digital Formatting by Author E.M.S.
To my lovely readers. My best wishes for Joy and Peace in the Holiday Season.
Thank you to my extraordinary team. Karuna, my plot partner, Valerie Susan Hayward, my amazing editor, and my always supportive husband. And to my support team who keep me writing. Maria Connor, Jen Rice, Cynthia Garlough, and my wonderous children. And to the outstanding Kim Killion, cover artist and Amy Atwell, who make my books both beautiful inside and out.
A Christmas Code
Hot and breathless from performing the newly imported French dance steps of the quadrille, Gwyneth paused during the break in the music. She fanned her heated cheeks, attempting to cool herself. Lord Henley glanced down at her. His lips were tight, his eyes dark with need. She had seen the same look on the faces of many men, but never on the face of the only man who mattered.
She wanted to see the same burning desire and possessiveness in the eyes of her childhood infatuation as she knew blazed in her eyes when she looked at the impossible but dazzling Viscount Ashworth.
The gentleman, newly arrived, had barely glanced at her despite the new gown made especially to entice the hardheaded rake. Her friend and dress designer, Amelia, obsessed with the simplicity of Greek togas, had crisscrossed sky blue silk across Gwyneth’s ample chest with a dramatic décolletage. The back of the gown was draped in the same manner with a revealing V. It was a simple design, but sensual in the way the fabric clung to her body.
She felt alluring, and she was hopeful that tonight Ash would finally throw off all the restraints. She had felt his eyes on her back, knowing he watched her as she gaily danced the intricate pattern she had recently learned from her French dance master.
Lord Henley offered his arm as the quadrille ended. “May I take you to the refreshment table for a glass of punch? This new French dance is very demanding.”
“Thank you. I’m not thirsty. Can you please take me to my dear friend, Miss Bonnington?”
Lord Henley’s eyes clouded with emotion. Gwyneth couldn’t refuse the dance, but she needed to escape the gentleman before he embarrassed himself. She wanted to spare him the pain of rejection. After five marriage proposals this season, she had become somewhat of an expert in recognizing the signs of imminent declaration.
Lord Henley escorted Gwyneth to Amelia, who had also finished dancing and now stood alone.
“Thank you, sir, for the dance.” Gwyneth did a brief curtsy.
Lord Henley bowed. “It was my pleasure.” He hesitated, then sharply nodded his head. She didn’t want to be unkind, but there was no reason to pretend interest and encourage hope when there was none.
They watched Lord Henley circle to the other side of the room.
Amelia hid her face behind her fan, her bright eyes dancing in merriment. “Another stricken gentleman.”
“I believe he was about to ask if he could call on my brother tomorrow. I think I did an excellent job of extricating myself before he declared his feelings.”
“Lord Henley is quite a catch. He’s heir to a vast fortune. His interest can’t be limited only to your dowry.”
“Thank you. I’m glad it isn’t only money that makes me attractive.” Gwyneth liked to believe it was her wit, her sparkling eyes, but she knew her position as sister to an earl and heiress to a hefty inheritance gave her a definite in with the gentleman. And it was just like Amelia to tease her.
“Your following of swains has nothing to do with your luscious figure, your dramatic looks, or your amiable personality. My unique skill as a designer has brought all these gentleman to swoon at your feet.” Amelia snickered, which made Gwyneth laugh.
Tears were running down Gwyneth’s cheeks. “You do know how to level a woman’s confidence.”
The comment drove both to louder laughter.
Gwyneth noticed that Ash had turned in her direction. He smiled.
Lost in the merriment, she smiled back before she remembered her resolution not to appear as a puppy, waiting at his feet for a pat on the head. She could hide her feelings as well as he did. Forbidden by some unwritten gentleman’s code, Ash considered her off limits. She wasn’t sure if it was the age difference of eight years, his rakish past, or her position as his best friend’s younger sister.
He still kept her at a distance, maintaining that she was a mere youngster and they were simply childhood friends. She had spent the entire season trying to convince him otherwise, but she was tiring of the game.
Amelia hadn’t missed the little exchange between her and Ash. Amelia and she had become close since Henrietta, Amelia’s best friend, had married Gwyneth’s brother. They consoled each other over the loss of the couple who now had interest only in each other.
“There are rumors…”
Gwyneth didn’t like the way Amelia’s voice grew quiet and serious. Her heart thumped against her chest.
“Ash is seeking an alliance with Lady Charolois.”
Gwyneth tried to swallow away the pain that lodged in her throat. “Who is Lady Charolois?”
Amelia put her hand on Gwyneth’s arm. The gesture of friendship only heightened the sinking feeling.
“She is a widow. Gossip is that her husband was a French marquis who was guillotined. She recently arrived in London. I believe she is a relative of Sir Cornwell.”
“Is she here now?”
“Yes, she is in conversation with Lord Ramsay.”
A tingle of awareness lifted the fine hairs on Gwyneth’s neck. Amelia wasn’t privy to the fact that Sir Ramsay had been Head of British Intelligence. Lady Charolois might be part of the network of spies that worked for her brother who had assumed Sir Ramsay’s position.
Hope fluttered in her breast. Ash’s interest in Lady Charolois might not indicate a return to his rakish past, but a mission. She had deduced that Ash’s years away in France had been in service to the crown, not for wild dissipation as he allowed everyone to believe.
Lord Ramsay shifted his position. Gwyneth glimpsed a small, blond, well-endowed, woman. Her stomach churned at the lady’s radiant beauty.
“She looks British.”
Gwyneth and Amelia turned their heads to see Ash, resplendent in a black coat, his broad shoulders taxing his jacket, making his way toward Lady Charolois.
Amelia’s sympathetic look made it all worse. “I don’t want you to make the mistake, I did. Don’t waste the best years of your life waiting and dreaming of something that may never come to pass.” Amelia and she had become closer when they both realized they shared the same affliction—unrequited love. Amelia had never spoken this frankly or despondently. Her friend had been waiting for Henrietta’s brother, Michael, for years.
She turned and looked at Amelia whose face was tight with stifled emotions. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize how badly you felt.”
“I don’t think I knew what I was missing until I saw how happy Henrietta has become.”
“Yes, it’s the same with my brother. They’re disgustingly happy.”
Amelia snorted. “Look, the happy couple just arrived.”
Cord and Henrietta stood at the door of the ballroom. It was obvious that neither were aware of the intimate bond that enveloped them. Cord held Henrietta close to his body. His harsh countenance softened as he gazed down on her. Even from thirty feet away, she could see Henrietta’s face blush deep.
“As I said, disgustingly happy,” Gwyneth scoffed. “I’ve decided to go to the Edworth’s Christmas house party and you need to come with me. We need to get away from London, away from…”
Gwyneth didn’t want to admit that she was already dreading the holidays with the happy couple. Not that she didn’t adore her brother and his simply wonderful wife, but she was ready to have someone special to share her favorite holiday.
“My brothers will be there. You haven’t met my oldest brother. He has a way with the ladies, but he is a true gentleman. And rumor has it that Prinny might make an appearance,” Amelia said.
“Really? The Prince of Wales is going to spend Christmas away from his father?”
“As you know, there is no deep affection between them. The king doesn’t approve of his son’s lavish living.”
“But still it’s Christmas, a time for families to be together.” As she spoke, she realized that her family had changed—no longer just herself, Cord and Aunt Euphemia.
She had always loved the holiday and romanticized the season as a time of magic and hope. Because of the loss of her oldest brother to a tragic riding accident, her parents made a big effort to create a special holiday for her, but there was always a ghost of sadness in the household. Though she had wonderful memories because Cord always came home to share them with her.
She had hoped to spend the holiday in Ash’s arms, planning their future. Talk about fantasies. It was time to take decisive steps toward her own future and stop waiting on the dashing gentleman who had been a young girl’s fantasy. It was time to take control of her life.
Ignoring the logical conclusions of her brain, she again led with her heart’s true desire. “Let’s join Sir Ramsay. I haven’t seen him in an age.”
“You want to join Ash and Lady Charolois?” Amelia’s voice sounded a bit strangled.
“No, I want to visit with Sir Ramsay. He’s a longtime family friend. I’m happy to greet this new lady and offer my friendship. I think that she might be in need of friends.” Gwyneth marched toward the group. She knew her shoulders were pulled back, her chin thrust forward. She had the look of determination that told those who knew her best to tread cautiously.
“You aren’t going to do anything rash? Cause a scene?” Amelia whispered behind her fan.
“Me? Cause a scene? I’m too mature of a woman for such childish displays.” She needed to see Ash’s reaction to the lady before she relinquished her illusions about him—before she decided whether to attend a Christmas party far away from him.
Ash had purposefully positioned himself with his back to her so she couldn’t see him work his appealing charm and flash his mischievous, crooked smile at the lady. Sir Ramsay was the first to see the ladies approaching. His taut, weathered face softened into a warm greeting.
“How lovely to greet my favorite neighbor. Lady Gwyneth and Miss Amelia. Well met.”
Ash turned around sharply when he heard her name. His eyes flared and then his lips pulled back in an outraged glower as he looked down at Amelia’s creation and her barely covered chest. His reaction made her heart palpitate. She felt his whole body tighten next to her, heard the barely audible hitch in his breath.
A warm feeling spread through Gwyneth as she observed Ash’s restrained reaction to her new gown. He wasn’t interested in Lady Charolois after all.
His only response to her was a curt nod of his head. “Lady Gwyneth and Miss Amelia.”
Sir Ramsay turned toward her and Amelia and asked, “Have you had the pleasure of meeting Lady Charolois?”
“We haven’t had the…pleasure…” Gwyneth stared at Ash, her chin raised in defiance of making the lady’s acquaintance.
Ash’s eyes narrowed with suspicion.
She had trouble
smiling. Oh, he wasn’t interested in the other lady.