Authors: Cheryl Holt
he prologue of this
novel first appeared as a Christmas short story at the terrific blog site,
Ramblings From This Chick
Every December, the site hosts a fun event where authors are given a holiday topic and asked to write a story about it. My topic was, “Caught in a Compromising Position on Christmas Eve.”
I told the story of Lady Theodosia Postlewaite who was unwittingly caught in a dark parlor with England’s most notorious roué—on the night her engagement was to be officially announced. As you might imagine, her engagement never occurred, and she was completely ruined.
After the story appeared, I heard from many readers who wondered—with her life in tatters—what would become of her? I thought she was a delightful and very sympathetic character, so I decided to tell her story in this novel.
Also in the prologue, there is a cameo appearance by one of the most intriguing and infamous characters I ever created: Charles Sinclair, Lord Trent. If you’d like to read more about him and his wicked ways, I hope you’ll check out my Lord Trent trilogy. The three novels are LOVE’S PROMISE, LOVE’S PRICE, and LOVE’S PERIL.
t’s all about the
“Isn’t it always?”
Lady Theodosia Postlewaite—known simply as Theo to her family—heard two women talking. She hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, but she couldn’t help it. A row of potted plants separated them, shielding Theo from view, so they weren’t aware of her presence.
“Her father is beggared.”
“That’s the rumor.”
Theo frowned, wondering if she should move away and stop listening. It was Christmas Eve, and she hated to learn that people were experiencing difficulties at such a special time. She hoped it wasn’t an acquaintance, but in the small world of London society, it probably was.
Curiosity kept her feet firmly in place.
“It’s why her father arranged the match—to get his hands on Hedley’s fortune.”
“I’m told he’s delivering cartloads of it.”
Theo bit down a gasp. Hedley Harrington was her fiancé. Surreptitiously, she glanced around the grand ballroom. Surely they couldn’t mean
Hedley. They had to be referring to someone else, but how many Hedleys could there be? It wasn’t a common name.
“With his being such a lowborn cad and his mother a ladder-climbing shrew, the union will propel them into the highest circles of the
“It’s precisely where his mother always planned for him to be.”
“His country mouse must think his affection is real.”
“The poor girl. How can she be so naïve?”
The women snickered, and Theo was dying to peek through the foliage to see who was speaking, but she didn’t dare let them observe her.
Instead, she gazed at the dancers twirling by and tried to concentrate on the glorious sight. Hedley’s mother, Beatrice, had outdone herself in decorating for the party, and the holiday ambiance was warm and inviting. Every inch of space was covered with pine-scented garlands, with holly and ivy. There was a huge Christmas tree in the corner, and a thousand candles burned in the chandeliers overhead.
When the clock struck midnight, her father would climb onto the dais with Beatrice and announce Theo’s engagement to Hedley. Gossip about them had swirled for weeks, with neither family confirming the stories that were circulating. But the betrothal was about to become official.
A footman walked by with a tray of champagne, and she grabbed two glasses. No one was paying any attention to her, so she downed the contents of one, then hid the empty glass in a plant behind her.
She sipped the other more slowly, struggling to calm her nerves. She wasn’t usually a drinker, but who could blame her for any increased imbibing?
She’d spent her life in the country, and she should have had a debut when she was seventeen, but numerous problems had prevented it. An uncle had perished, then an aunt, then a cousin. Theo felt as if she’d been in mourning forever, and with her mother deceased since she was a baby, there had been no mentor to rectify the situation and get her back on track.
She was hostess at their rural estate of Oakwood, but her father, Lord Wood, rarely visited and they weren’t close. He was busy with his gaming and friends in town. After he’d apprised her she could travel to London to stay with him, she’d been ecstatic. After he’d introduced her to Hedley, then whispered that Hedley would like to propose, she’d been even more elated.
Hedley was bombastic, pompous, and pretentious, and he dressed fashionably and cut a dashing figure. He was constantly surrounded by sophisticated, urbane females, so she couldn’t believe he’d chosen her. Yet she barely knew him. They’d spoken on a few occasions, and he was fifteen years older than she was.
For some reason, she kept running those numbers in her mind. She was twenty-two and he was thirty-seven. When she was thirty, he’d be forty-five. When she was forty, he’d be…
Well, she shouldn’t obsess. What was the point? How could their age difference matter? On one futile evening, she’d broached the subject with her father, and he’d glared at her as if she was an idiot, so she hadn’t raised the issue again.
The only pertinent information she’d managed to obtain about Hedley was the fact that he liked horses. He liked racing them and betting on them and buying and selling them. She wasn’t interested in horses at all. What would they talk about at the breakfast table? Had they anything in common?
She doubted it, and since she was a romantic person who’d always dreamed of being passionately in love with her husband, the prospect that they were strangers and would likely remain strangers was terrifying.
She downed her champagne again—even though she shouldn’t have. She’d passed the day getting ready for the ball, so she’d been too anxious to eat. The first glass had relaxed her, and she was certain the second one would provide even more relief.
The two women started in again.
“Deidre DuBois is having a fit about his engagement.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“She actually assumed he’d marry her.”
“She’s an actress! How could she suppose his mother would agree?”
“Hedley considered eloping with her.”
“He wouldn’t have. He’d never disobey his dear mama.”
“Oh, really? Deidre is here as his special guest.”
“Yes! He put his foot down and insisted she be invited. His mother couldn’t prevent it. He’s with her now. Look.”
Theo peeked to the far corner where Hedley was chatting with a group of people. She didn’t know any of them, but one in particular stood out. She was a buxom beauty with gorgeous auburn hair and big blue eyes, and she was clutching his arm in a proprietary way.
As to Hedley, he appeared very comfortable with her. He kept leaning down and whispering in her ear, then they’d laugh together.
Another footman went by, and Theo grabbed a third glass of champagne. Clearly two glasses weren’t going to be enough.
“How long has he been with Deidre? Three years?”
“It’s more like five.”
“He’s been bragging that he’ll continue the affair even after he’s married. He’s positive Lady Theodosia is so gullible she’ll never realize it.”
Theo worried she might swoon, right there on the edge of the ballroom. She’d embarrass her father, shame herself, and humiliate Hedley’s mother. Hedley would emerge unscathed though. From how he was focused on the woman by his side, Theo could drop dead from mortification, and he wouldn’t bother to glance over.
Suddenly, she felt as if she was suffocating. She wanted to rush to her father and demand answers to questions she had no idea how to ask. She wanted to shake him until some truths rattled out.
He was a baron, the Prince Regent his great chum, so he hobnobbed with the loftiest peers of the realm. Any man—Hedley, for instance—who wed his only daughter would be immediately thrust into the social circles where her father thrived.
Was that why Hedley had picked her? Had she been…been…
like a cow at a fair? Was her father penniless? Hedley’s father had been a sugar planter in Jamaica. He’d parlayed the riches from that plantation into a shipping company that delivered goods back and forth across the Atlantic. Hedley was obscenely wealthy because of it.
Would he give her father money so he could marry into an aristocratic family?
Of course you ninny!
He could have wed anyone. Why else would he have selected her?
In the suave, chic crowd, she might have been invisible. Her gown was pretty enough, and her maid had curled and braided her blond hair in a fetching style, but she didn’t have the calculating temperament that was required to fit in.
Her father claimed she’d develop a thicker skin, that she’d learn to comport herself with the cool disdain exuded by others. But just then, she was tremendously aggrieved, and she couldn’t conceal her fury. It didn’t seem possible.
It was easy to tiptoe out, and she stopped a maid and asked for the lady’s retiring room. She was directed down a quiet hall, and she hurried toward it, but when she reached it, she kept on.
Quickly, the sounds of the party faded away. The hall grew darker, with only an occasional wall sconce lit. There were doors on either side of her. She turned various knobs, but they were all locked. Finally, at the end, she was able to open one.
She snuck into a small parlor. A fire burned in the grate, a sofa positioned in front of it. It was the perfect spot to calm her raging emotions, to have some privacy while she figured out how to proceed.
Her entire life, she’d been a meek, obedient daughter, but she’d always been an afterthought to her father. When he’d brought her to town, when he’d informed her of her marriage offer, she’d been so flattered that she hadn’t pondered whether she should agree to the engagement.
She’d trusted her father, but why should she have? She scarcely knew him so why would she blindly follow his advice on any topic?
If the gossipmongers were correct, her betrothed had a mistress to whom he’d been ardently attached for years. That very moment, the doxy was out in the ballroom with him. Where did that leave Theo?
Her anger sparked to such a high level she was surprised the top of her head didn’t simply blow off. She was still clutching her glass of champagne. Feeling reckless and brazen, she hurled it at the mantle, and it shattered effectively.
“I’ll show him,” she muttered. “I’ll show both of them. I won’t go through with it.”
“Do you hate champagne that much?” a man asked from behind her. “Or is it the crystal Beatrice Harrington uses? I find it quite inferior myself. The champagne too.”
She whipped around, but the rapid motion left her very dizzy, and she had to grab the sofa to maintain her balance. Apparently, she’d had too much to drink on an empty stomach.
“I beg your pardon,” she mumbled. “I didn’t realize this room was occupied.”
He was sitting in a dark corner, and having witnessed her paltry temper tantrum, he seemed vastly amused. He held a tumbler in his hand, and he toasted her with it. “Would you like to throw this one too? It’s a bit heavier, so it might be harder to break. You might have to toss it more than once.”
“No, no, that’s all right. I shouldn’t have smashed the first one.” She put her palms on her hot cheeks. “I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life. Would you excuse me?”
“There’s no need to rush out. It’s evident you’re seeking some privacy. Pretend I’m not here.”
There was a table next to him, a liquor decanter on it. As if she wasn’t present, he drew out the cork and poured some into his glass. She watched him, and though she told herself to march out, she couldn’t move.
She didn’t want to return to the ball where she’d be forced to observe as her fiancé cooed with his mistress. She didn’t want to see her father because she’d feel duty-bound to ask him about Hedley, but he would merely scoff and scold and mock her.
She could have wept with dismay, but she’d just behaved like a child in front of this stranger, and she couldn’t bear to make matters worse.
He was enjoying his libation, and after awhile, he glanced up. “You’re still here.”
There was a second glass on the table—as if he’d been expecting someone—and he filled it to the rim and extended it to her. “Since you’re staying, you might as well join me.”
“I don’t know if I ought. I’ve already had too much.”
“It obviously hasn’t helped, so in my opinion, you haven’t had nearly enough.”
He gestured in invitation, and she staggered over and plopped down. Their chairs were side by side, so they were seated very close, their thighs and arms touching. She shifted to put some space between them, but she didn’t have much room to maneuver.
He gave her the glass, and she gulped down the contents, but it was much stronger than the champagne she’d been drinking. She coughed and sputtered and pounded a fist on her chest.
“Perhaps you’re correct,” he said, and he took the liquor from her. “Perhaps you’ve had enough after all.”
“I should go.”
“Yes, you probably should.”
“People will be missing me in the ballroom.”
“The world will keep spinning if you hide for a few minutes.”
“If I was caught with you, I’d be in trouble.”
“Yes, you would be,” he blithely concurred. “But
if you’re caught. I can’t imagine anyone stumbling down that deserted hall.”
“I did it with no difficulty.”
“You’re the sole person who’s passed by so far. I doubt you’ll be followed.”
“I’m certain I won’t be.” Morosely, she admitted, “My absence won’t be noticed.”
“Then I’m lucky to have your company, for I was growing lonely.”
She looked at him then, and she blatantly stared—and rudely too.
He was much older than she was, even older than Hedley, but he was handsome and debonair as Hedley could never be. With his silvery blond hair and magnificent green eyes, his mannerisms were very cultured, very urbane, and there was a flair about him that made her wonder if he might have French antecedents.
He had a bit of an accent she couldn’t define, and he seemed very exotic, but in a fascinating way.
“I’m Charles,” he said.
His familiarity flummoxed her, so it didn’t occur to her that he would reach out and kiss her hand. She was wearing gloves, so she couldn’t feel his lips on her skin, but still it was the most intimately shocking thing that had ever happened to her.
“What’s your name, darling?”
“That’s a bundle of name for a female as slight and slender as you are.”
“You can call me Theo if you want.”
“Theo Postlewaite.” He studied her, then nodded. “You’re here with your father, Lord Wood.”
“And you’re rumored to be betrothed to Hedley Harrington.”
“Our parents will officially announce it at midnight.”
“My, my, an engagement on Christmas Eve. It’s very romantic.”
“You don’t think so? Aren’t you a romantic sort?”