“Oh, dear.” Eugenia, Marchioness of Devon, chewed her bottom lip as she read the missive in her hand.
Her husband, Devon, lowered the morning newspaper, and regarded her over the breakfast table. “What is it, my love?”
“It seems Great-Aunt Lavinia is coming for Christmas after all.” Eugenia took a sip of tea and continued to read. “She writes that her bones are feeling better, so she shall make the trip.”
“Her bones are feeling better?” Devon grinned, but then quickly sobered. “Has that horrible cat she calls a pet died yet?”
Eugenia shook her head. “No. I’m afraid she says here that she and Caesar are so looking forward to spending Christmas with her favorite great-niece and her family.”
Great-Aunt Lavinia’s cat was a plague to everyone in the family, except Great-Aunt Lavinia. The animal was white, stringy-haired, the size of a small dog, weighed more than a stone, hated everyone except his mistress, spit, scratched, and glared at one as if he intended to make one his next meal. He was apt to take naps wherever and whenever he wished, and snored loud enough to rattle the windows.
“She also says she is arriving,” Eugenia looked up at Devon with wide eyes, “today.”
Bellows, the aged butler who had served the family well for years, entered the breakfast room and stood at attention as any fine soldier would. “My lord, a carriage has arrived.”
“Aunt Lavinia.” They spoke to each other at the same time.
“When is your mother arriving?” Devon asked as they headed to the front entrance. “She is always able to keep Aunt Lavinia out of trouble.”
“She is arriving later today with Nash and Arabella, and Arabella’s mother.”
“I am surprised being newly wed that your brother is gracing us with his presence.”
“I am sure it was either that or host his mother-in-law.” She grinned. “Need I say more?”
Aunt Lavinia huffed up the steps, barking orders as she climbed. “See that my little darling gets something to eat right away. I can never feed him before a carriage ride. His tiny stomach does not take travel very well.”
Devon’s eyebrows rose and he mouthed “tiny stomach?” behind Aunt Lavinia’s back. Eugenia had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. No one would ever call Caesar little darling or describe his stomach as tiny.
“Aunt Lavinia. How wonderful to see you. I am so happy you are able to join us.” Eugenia hugged the older woman, pulling her corpulent body close. For as much trouble as the woman’s nasty pet was, Eugenia did hold a fondness for her great-aunt. From as far back as she could remember, Aunt Lavinia always smelled like lilac and peppermint.
She had a fondness for sweets and was more than willing to share them with her grand-niece. As long as Eugenia’s mother, the Dowager Lady Clarendon, didn’t know.
“Merry Christmas, Eugenia.” She moved back and stared at her. “You seem to have recovered from your lying-in quite well. How is my great-great-nephew?” She shook her head. “My goodness that makes me seem old, does it not?”
“Our son is well. He certainly eats enough.”
Aunt Lavinia patted Eugenia’s check. “Which is wonderful. He will be a strong boy.”
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Aunt.” Devon gave her a hug, as well.
She regarded him. “I see you are taking very good care of my great-niece.” She patted him on the cheek. “Good.” She looked around. “Now where is my little darling?”
A footman followed Aunt Lavinia from the carriage, carrying a cage with a hissing, wailing, screeching, fighting feline. Holding the cage well away from his body, he said, “My lady, where shall I put your…pet?”
“Oh, my poor sweetheart.” She cooed at the animal, who immediately settled down and began licking its unmentionable body parts.
Aunt Lavinia headed toward the kitchen, footman and cat on her heels, already shouting orders for the cat’s food. No sooner had Devon and Eugenia taken a deep breath than two more carriages arrived carrying the rest of their guests.
“It seems Christmas has officially started,” Devon said as he took Eugenia’s arm and they greeted the family.
“Devon, it’s missing.” Eugenia grabbed Devon’s hand as he entered her bedchamber and pulled him in. She looked up and down the corridor and closed the door, leaning against it. “The book is missing.”
Eugenia had found a thoroughly scandalous book in a bookstore earlier in the year. Using the information in the book, she had seduced her husband into a torrid love affair that they were still celebrating. But it was not the sort of book one wanted family members to know one possessed.
“Are you sure it’s missing?”
“Yes.” She walked over to the table alongside the bed. She opened the drawer. “I always keep it in here in a blue bag with a drawstring. When I came in just now, the drawer was partially opened, and the book was missing.”
Eugenia shook her head. “No. She knows about the book, and she would never take it.”
“You must have put it somewhere else the last time we used it.” Devon ran his fingers up and down her arm, causing gooseflesh to erupt. “Actually, it seems quite a while since we availed ourselves of the interesting ideas in the book.” His voice deepened, making her heart speed up.
Eugenia smiled. “Perhaps a Christmas present, my lord?” She wrapped her hand around his nape and pulled him close. For a minute she was lost in the feel of Devon’s warm lips on hers. Then she remembered the scandalous book was missing, it was Christmas Eve, and she had a houseful of company. Reluctantly she pulled away. “We have to find the book, Devon. If anyone accidentally opens it, we will be humiliated.”
He sighed. “Yes, my love. I’m afraid you’re right. Just to be certain, let us search the room.”
After a thorough search they admitted the book was, indeed, missing. Arm-in-arm, they descended the stairs and made their way to the breakfast room.
“Good morning, everyone,” Devon said as they entered the room. It seemed none of their guests had decided to stay abed and the room was filled. Nash, Arabella, Lady Melrose, Lady Clarendon, Aunt Lavinia, and last night’s arrivals, Pastor Clements, his wife, and two daughters, all sat around the table, with lively conversation flowing.
“It appears we had some snow overnight. Is anyone up for a sleigh ride?” Eugenia poured tea in her cup and added sugar and cream, closing her eyes in pleasure as she took her first sip.
“I would love a sleigh ride.” Arabella’s eyes lit up and she turned to Nash who nodded his agreement.
Devon signaled one of the footmen. “Have Johnson prepare the two sleighs for a ride this morning.”
The man bowed and left the room. The group continued to discuss the upcoming sleigh ride and how they would spend the rest of the day before the big Christmas Eve ball. Many of the neighbors had been invited, and—before the disaster of the book missing—Eugenia had been looking forward to her first Christmas Eve ball as hostess.
“Oh, my goodness. What does my little darling have now?” Aunt Lavinia pointed at a place behind Devon. “What is that?”
Eugenia choked on her tea as she watched in horror as the abhorrent cat dragged the blue drawstring bag with the book in it across the room. She looked quickly at Devon who had turned quite pale and jumped up from his seat. He made his way to the animal, and, just as he reached it, the cat backed up, screeched to wake the dead, the hair on its back standing straight up.
“Here, kitty.” Devon got down on his knees and spoke in a soothing voice as the cat continued to howl.
“Oh, just leave him be,” Aunt Lavinia said, returning to her breakfast. “He’ll probably drop whatever it is he has there.” She nodded to one of the footmen. “We could use more hot tea.”
Eugenia’s heart continued to pound so hard she could no longer swallow. Once Devon returned to his seat, the cat settled down, lying on top of Arabella’s feet. Eugenia had not known Caesar to go near anyone, except Aunt Lavinia, without causing physical harm. Apparently, there was something special about Eugenia’s new sister-in-law.
Bit here the animal was, licking his paws. Everyone continued on with their meal, except Eugenia and Devon who watched as the cat finished grooming itself, then bit the drawstring on the bag and ran off.
No one noticed but them.
The next few hours were taken up with the sleigh ride. The enthusiastic group piled into two large sleighs. Eugenia enjoyed being huddled next to Devon, under the fur blanket, their faces red from the cold as they rode miles and miles around the countryside.
Snow had turned the area into a winter wonderland. Shouting and laughter echoed off the outbuildings and trees as the sleighs raced through the snow. Nash, with his fine baritone voice, began singing, and soon everyone joined it. A magical moment.
They all arrived back at the house cold and full of Christmas spirit. “Hot chocolate for everyone,” Eugenia called to the group as they rid themselves of coats, hats, scarves, and gloves.
“And brandy for the men,” Devon added.
Aunt Lavinia, who had chosen to stay behind, ambled to the entry hall. “There you all are. Even though I wasn’t foolish enough to race around in the cold weather like some addlepated others, I could still use a chocolate myself.” She cast a glance at Devon. “With a dollop of brandy. To warm me up, of course.”
Devon smirked and bowed. “Of course, my lady. May I escort you to the drawing room?” He held out his elbow and the older woman took it, just as a large white streak whizzed by.
“Oh, goodness.” Aunt Lavinia took in a sharp breath. “My darling scared me to death.”
Eugenia watched in dismay as Caesar flew up the stairs, dragging the blue bag behind him, the book beating a cadence as it hit each step.
“Whatever is in that bag?” The Dowager Lady Clarendon asked.
Later that night
Before she ascended to her bedchamber to prepare for the Christmas Eve fete, Eugenia gave the ballroom one final inspection. The space glowed like a child’s fairyland, with garland, decorated with bright red ribbons, strewn about and hundreds of candles in the chandeliers, the candlelight reflecting off the mirrors on the walls. The orchestra would be situated at the alcove on the north side of the room, the refreshment table laden with punch, ratafia, champagne, numerous tarts, and sweets on the south side.
With a sigh of happiness, Eugenia returned to her bedchamber and turned herself over to her lady’s maid’s ministrations. She was putting her earbobs on, along with the bracelet and ring that matched, when Devon entered her bedchamber. Her heart gave a little flutter at his handsome countenance. All black attire, except for a stark white shirt and cravat. His hair was swept back from his forehead, but already the one curl that would never stay put rested right above his brow.
“Have you seen that dreadful cat anywhere?” Devon fastened a necklace on Eugenia’s neck, then bent to kiss her nape.
“No” She turned to him. “With all these people here tonight, I am very, very nervous about not having snatched the book back from the vile cat.”
He sighed and rested his hands on her shoulders. “I fear if I see it with the book I am going to have to suffer the consequences and wrestle it from him.”
“He will scratch you to death.”
He smirked. “Well worth the pain to retrieve it.”
She rose on her tiptoes and kissed him. “I love you, my lord.”
“And I love you, my lady.” He extended his arm and they left the room.
Guests had been arriving for more than thirty minutes. Eugenia had seen the cat a few times, still dragging the bag, dodging guests’ feet. Aunt Lavinia held court in one corner of the room, oblivious to the wretched animal’s shenanigans. Of course, that might be better, since the woman might have asked one of the footmen to grapple with Caesar to get the bag and present it to her.
Eugenia did not have enough smelling salts—nay, there weren’t enough in all of London—to revive her aunt should she take a peek at the book
It was near time for them to open the ball with the first dance. Eugenia and Devon entered the ballroom and signaled the orchestra to begin a waltz. He opened his arms and Eugenia stepped into them. How she loved dancing with her husband!
They floated around the room for a few minutes, and then several other couples joined them and the ball was officially underway.
“Goodness, what was that?” Lady Bellingworth screeched as Caesar ran through the throng, apparently brushing up against the woman’s skirts. Several men attempted to catch the fast-moving animal, still dragging the bag, as Eugenia and Devon looked on in horror. With one final romp around the room, the cat raced away.
Eugenia took a deep breath. “I am beginning to feel as though I will not survive this Christmas party.”
“Or we will have to change our names and move to the Colonies,” he quipped.
As it grew close to midnight, Devon took Eugenia by the hand and drew her underneath the mistletoe. “Merry Christmas, my love. This has been truly the best year of my life.” He bent his head and took her mouth in a searing kiss, right there before the entire assembly.
They broke apart at the sound of a feline wail. Caesar sat at their feet. He looked directly into Eugenia’s eyes and dropped the end of the drawstring onto her foot. She quickly reached down and grabbed the bag. Caesar sat back on his haunches and meowed, once. Then he turned and raced away. Eugenia swore the blasted animal winked at her.
Two hours later, Eugenia and Devon reclined side by side in their comfortable bed, the open book on Devon’s lap. “I am so glad we got the book back from Caesar,” Devon said, flipping the pages. “Oh, here’s one. Page seventy-five.”
She looked over his shoulder. “We’ve already done that.”
“Yes, we did, my love. And I think it’s time we repeated it.” Devon closed the book and placed it carefully in the drawer next to the bed. He blew out the candle and wrapped his arm around Eugenia, pulling her down onto the bed. He rolled on top of her. “I think we should buy a safe for the book.”
“I will order one posthaste, my lord. Definitely posthaste.”
Characters from Seducing the Marquess, https://calliehutton.com/book/seducing-the-marquess/