The Last Chance Christmas Ball
Old Flames Dance
(written under my pen name Cara Elliott)
Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Hall 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…
A chance meeting beneath the mistletoe, a stolen glance across the dance floor—amid the sumptuous delicacies, glittering decorations, and swell of the orchestra, every duchess and debutante, lord and lackey has a hopeful heart. There’s the headstrong heiress who must win back her beloved by midnight—or be wed to another….the spinster whose fateful choice to relinquish love may hold one more surprise for her…a widow yearning to glimpse her long-lost love for even one sweet, fleeting interlude …a charming rake who finds far more than he bargained for. And many other dazzling, romantic tales in this star-studded collection that will fill your heart and spice up your holidays…
Hugging her knees to her chest, Lily tried to quiet her thoughts. It was pointless to torment herself with what might have been. Edward had likely long since forgotten the youthful infatuation. Like many handsome, titled gentlemen, he had avoided marriage, no doubt happy that fate’s twist had given him the freedom to sow his wild oats.
If that were changing now, it was because the heir was eventually expected to settle down. Time and change—it was the natural order of things.
But after tossing and turning for yet another interminable interlude in the bed, Lily gave up trying to sleep and threw back the eiderdown coverlet. Deciding that a book might help quiet her mind and allow her to drift off into the land of Morpheus, she tugged on her wrapper, then padded to the armoire and wound one of her woven Indian shawls around her shoulders. An extra layer, however thin, would help ward off the unaccustomed chilliness of the night—and perhaps, she thought wryly, the fiery colors might add an extra spark of warmth.
She lit the candle by the door, and made her way out into the deserted corridor. All was silent, save for a flutter of cold air and a creak from the old floor as she started for the library.
One, two, three . . . Lily carefully counted the closed doors, hoping that in her agitation she had not become confused. Pausing halfway down the drafty length, she clicked open a latch and slipped inside. The chair, thank heavens, was empty and the fire banked down to glowing coals. The faint hiss and crackle stirred memories of past Christmases. She stood still for a moment, recalling jolly laughter echoing through halls hung with holly and mistletoe. It all seemed a world away.
Shaking off a clench of sadness, she moved to the tall bookshelves and, holding her candle high, began to make her way slowly along the rows of leatherbound spines, leaning close to read the gilt-stamped titles.
“You are looking in the wrong place.” The low voice was like a finger of fire teasing down the length of her spine.
“Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels are on the next shelf.”
Lily grasped the decorative wood molding to steady her stance. All of a sudden her skin was prickling with heat. Steady, steady. She drew in a great gulp of the night air, taking a moment to compose herself. Then, turning slowly, she managed a calm half smile. “Actually, I was hoping you might have Pride and Prejudice, the newest novel by the author of Sense and Sensibility. Having just arrived back in England, I’ve not yet had a chance to visit a bookstore and purchase it.”
• • • •
Edward, Viscount Brentford and heir to the earldom of Holbourne, moved out of shadows. “No visit to Hatchard’s?”
“No,” she replied softly.
It was Lily. Any lingering doubt was put to flight by her voice. The sound struck a chord deep within that had been silent for . . . too many years.
“I had very little time in Town before heading north,” she added.
“Well, you are in luck. We do have a copy.” Two strides brought him closer to her—close enough to inhale the scent perfuming her skin—a beguiling mix of neroli and jasmine, spiced with some exotic undertone to which he couldn’t put a name. Reaching up, he plucked a slim volume down from the top shelf.
“Word is the author is a lady by the name of Jane Austen,” he murmured as he held it out to her.
“Whatever her name, the story is said to be sharply observant, insightfully wise and slyly clever,” she responded. “Which of course doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
A chuckle rose in his throat. “I see that we shall still argue over whether women can write as well as men. But in this case, I shall have to concede that the book is exceedingly good.”
“I—look forward to reading it.” Lily tucked the little volume inside the folds of her shawl. She looked away, the shadows masking her face.
He wished he could read her thoughts.
As for his own . . .
To cover his confusion, Edward turned slightly and fumbled for flint and steel to light the branch of candles on the sidetable. The flames leapt to life, and yet, to his dismay, the light did not quite reach her profile.
“That is a very striking shawl,” he observed in order to break the awkward silence that had settled between them. “All the different shades of red are quite extraordinary.” Ye Gods, had he really uttered such an addlepated comment? “They bring out the subtle coppery highlights in your hair,” he added lamely
Her heard jerked around. “I fear the harsh sun has made the copper none too subtle anymore. More than one acquaintance has commented that I often take on a Mars-like glow when I am roused to action.”
Edward would have chosen a different god—or goddess—to mention. Venus. At that moment, she looked even more beautiful than he remembered. “I never thought of you as bellicose. Certainly wise, so your acquaintance would have been more accurate to call your Minerva rather than Mars.”
“I suppose different people see different things.” Lily hesitated. “I—I never thought that you would recognize me. My hair, my face—I daresay my whole appearance has changed greatly in ten years.”
“I knew you in an instant,” he replied. “It is the way you carry yourself, the way you move.”
Her eyes widened ever so slightly, but before he could discern what emotion might be swirling within their hazel depths, her lashes lowered, shuttering her gaze.
“I would have thought that I had acquired a very peculiar sway over the years. Riding an elephant is not at all like riding a horse.”
“No,” he said quietly. “You are as graceful as before.”
Biting her lip, she looked away again. It was a familiar quirk of hers and made him feel marginally less foolish. He knew she only did it when she was nervous.
“What does puzzle me is why I didn’t see your name on the guest list,” he went on. “Grandmamma asked me to go over the invitations with her weeks ago, and I am quite sure I would not have missed it.”
“It was there,” she assured him. “Mr. Carrington passed away in India six years ago. I am now Mrs. Tremaine.”
The statement hit him like a punch to the gut, but Edward managed to shake off the pain and keep his expression impassive. Having lost her once, what did it matter if he had lost her a second time?
“Ah,” he answered politely. “Mr. Tremaine did not choose to accompany you north?”
“I am a widow,” she said. “Yet again.”
He wished a hole—a very deep one—would open up beneath his feet and swallow him into the bowels of the Earth. “My condolences,” he said, more gruffly than he intended.
“Thank you.” Her voice held no hint of what she was thinking. “I . . . I should return to my room.”
Loath though he was to let her go, he could think of nothing to say to keep her. “Yes, you must be tired from your travels.”
“Not really.” Her shawl fluttered, the deep scarlet and earthy cinnabar colors rippling like a flame against the iron-gray shadows. “But now I have a good book to read.”
Edward felt his mouth twitch up at the corners.
Lily shifted and slowly turned for the door. As she did, her gaze fell upon a small round game table set in an alcove between the bookshelves. Centered on the inlaid pearwood was an antique chess set carved out of ebony and ivory. “You still play?”
“Yes, I have been practicing. But likely I am still not able to beat you.” Drawing in a deep breath, he thought for a moment. Chess was all about strategy. For all her quiet, calm demeanor, Lily had never been one to back down from a challenge.
“Care to try?” he asked casually.