Authors: Cathy Maxwell
His Christmas Pleasure
For Ken and Maureen Baker.
Your friendship has been an anchor in our lives.
Andres had secrets …
She knew so little about him,
and what she knew was mostly rumor from women who were so batty-eyed over him, they’d lost all sensibility and decorum.
And here she’d put herself in his hands.
“You can trust me,” he said. “I will never hurt you. I am your protector.”
“And what does that mean?” she asked. Their faces were no more than a hand’s width apart and she found herself staring at his mouth, noticing how masculine, how sensual, his lips were.
Those lips curved into a smile.
Oh, yes, he knew what she was thinking.
“It means this,” he whispered—and then leaned toward her for a kiss.
London, October 1810
The butt of the ornate dueling pistol was saw-handled, so it felt short in Andres’s grip. Obviously, the gun’s owner, the duke of Banfield, didn’t have hands as large as his own. However, Andres did like the spur on the trigger guard, which allowed a man to rest a finger and steady his aim. It was a magnificent weapon, truly bored and no doubt sporting the fastest, most effective flintlock that ingenuity could design and money could buy.
Andres had discovered it in Banfield’s library when he’d escaped from the ballroom to avoid Carla, the lovely Lady Dobbins and a man-eater of the first order. A month ago, she’d set her sights on Andres with a ferocity that was becoming embarrassing. She was hunting him down, and even a meeting in public was no guarantee there wouldn’t be a scene.
The moment he’d arrived this evening, she’d rushed up to him, brushing past others in her anxiousness to claim him. As soon as he’d been able, he’d freed himself of her and made his way to this safe haven.
He couldn’t let Carla chase him off. Tonight was important. Banfield was not one who enjoyed the country. He had become known for the parties he hosted in the fall and winter, when often the only people left in town were those in politics, those with power and advantage. Andres, who claimed the Spanish title barón de Vasconia, hoped to make an advantageous contact this evening that could lead to a possible career in the English government. The English were at war on the Continent. They had need of a man who understood the Peninsula, or even the world. Andres had traveled much of both, and he knew that, given the chance, he could make a contribution to this new country of his.
Of course, a government career was not his first choice of livelihood. Horses were in his blood. But a man without two shillings to his name, titled or not, couldn’t be choosy.
The library was obviously Banfield’s personal domain. Not even the strains of music or the dizzying hum of laughter and conversation from the ballroom intruded past these book-lined walls. The furnishings were Sheraton, severe and plain to Andres’s eye. The settee and three chairs were grouped before the fire burning in the grate. Beyond them was Banfield’s desk, a heavy, oversized structure carved from mahogany.
The pair of dueling pistols had been displayed like prized possessions in a velvet case on Banfield’s desk. Their ivory handles had gleamed in the lamplight, drawing Andres to them.
He doubted if Banfield had ever used these guns for their true purpose. The duke was far too amiable a character to find himself in duels, unlike Andres, who had participated in more than his share.
Most likely the duke kept these weapons for show or to take out occasionally for practice. They were a living symbol of his ducal honor, which was a pity, Andres thought as he raised the weapon. He tested its sight by focusing on one of those ghoulishly grinning porcelain dogs on the mantel. This pistol was too fine to not be used for its intended purpose—
His eye caught movement.
Instincts honed by years of hard living brought the gun around. He took aim—and then realized he was preparing to shoot his own reflection in a large, ornate bull’s-eye mirror hanging on the opposite wall.
For a long moment, Andres stood still, fascinated by his distorted image in the mirror. His
face was larger in the center, his shoulders and arms small.
Slowly, deliberately, he turned his hand so the gun aimed at his head.
How easy it would be to pull the trigger.
He stood, riveted by the sight. By the temptation.
At last he understood his father.
Death would be freeing. No more struggles to reclaim a heritage Andres knew was hopelessly lost, though he feared it had never been his to begin with. No more carrying the weight of his own mistakes, his many failures. Or the pain of living without love. He could curse Gillian for introducing him to what the word meant and then leaving him to return to her husband.
If he was going to take his own life, he’d do it right. He’d blow off this face of his, which was both blessing and curse.
Andres might have been born of the noble house of the Ramigio, but he had betrayed that royal lineage more times than he cared to remember. He was unworthy. A failure. If he had any honor at all, he’d pull this trigger, just as his father had. He wasn’t enough. He never would be enough—
“No, stop. It’s a sin.”
Before he could turn, could comment, he was tackled to the ground by a redheaded force of
nature. She’d caught him off guard and had easily toppled all six feet one of him.
Dazed, Andres looked up to find a young woman with an impossible mop of carroty-colored hair frowning down at him. She’d fallen on top of him in her effort to knock him over, and she now pushed herself up, her hands resting on his chest. “You would make a terrible mess in the room if you shot yourself,” she said earnestly, “as well as bring a halt to the party.”
Andres still had the pistol in his hand. He lifted it for her to see that the hammer wasn’t cocked. “I wasn’t doing what you imagine.”
She tilted her head, as if his accented English had surprised her, as if discovering the gun un-cocked surprised her.
“What you saw is not what you think.” Actually, he was embarrassed to have been caught. Nor did he want rumors circulating that he was suicidal. That was all he needed. Carla would believe it was over her and he’d never be rid of her. “The pistol is not loaded.”
“It’s not what? …” A frown formed between her brows. “Why would you point a ‘not loaded’ pistol to your head?”
“Not because I was attempting to take my life,” Andres said, raising himself to rest on his elbows and take a better look at his would-be savior … and finding himself pleasantly surprised.
He’d not met her before. She was strikingly different from the ranks of willowy blondes and curvy brunettes of his acquaintance. She even had freckles on her nose. He’d not seen one freckle in any upper-class English drawing room. He’d thought they’d been forbidden, banned completely with creams and hats and whatever artifices could be designed—and yet here they were.
Those freckles made her seem … not less refined but more vivid, more alive.
She didn’t move. She sat on him, contemplating him with an expression that reminded him of a small, serious owl. “You were considering it,” she decided,
“and considering it is a sin as well.”
The boredom, the disinterest that had laced itself tightly around his life of late gave way. She was such an English lamb. They always felt they knew everything, and she was so certain she’d saved him.
“Not all is what it seems,” he answered. “For example, if someone were to walk in at this moment, what would they think was happening between us?”
Her eyes narrowed. They were blue eyes. Common with red hair but devilishly attractive. “If you wish to point out how compromising this position is, say so. I acted as I did because I thought you needed help.”
“Oh, I could use some help,” Andres assured her as lust slammed into him with a force he’d not anticipated. He sat up, wanting to both gather her in his arms and hide the fact of his arousal.
For a second, they were almost nose-to-nose. Heat-to-heat.
She’d felt him. Knew he was hard. He saw it in those disconcerting eyes of hers and discovered something else too—she was unimpressed. Disinterested.
With a very firm push against his shoulders, she attempted to rise, no easy task in the tangle of her muslin skirts. “Men are the silliest creatures,” she muttered, rising halfway up. “I sought to help—”
“To help what, Abby?” a male voice said from the doorway. “And what are you doing on the floor behind the furniture?”
Immediately, his would-be rescuer froze. Her gaze said all—she did not want to be discovered with Andres.
So the lamb wasn’t so naive after all.
Andres did the gentlemanly thing. He raised his fingers to his lips, promising his silence, and lay back down.
Abby shook out her skirts and forced a smile to her lips. “Myself,” she said.
“I sought to help myself.”
“Why were you on the floor?” her gentleman asked.
“You know how clumsy I am,” she murmured, stepping around the settee and moving further away from where Andres lay.
Andres expected the gentleman to say something gallant about her not being clumsy. Instead, her gent agreed with her. “You were never graceful.”
“Thank you, Freddie,” she said with no small amount of exasperation, but then her tone lifted. “I’m so happy to finally be alone with you. What is it you wished to say to me? Wait, perhaps not here. Let us go someplace more quiet.”
Andres heard the door shut, but they hadn’t left. “There is no place more quiet than here,” Freddie said. “And I must talk to you.”
“About what?” she said, her tone now eager, warmer.
Rolling over on his side the better to listen, Andres wondered who this Freddie was. He saw Abby’s skirts and a pair of male legs. It was hard to judge a man by his feet, although his footwear was of good quality.
“Sit down,” Freddie ordered.
There was a beat of silence during which Abby did not sit down. “You aren’t going to marry me, are you?”
Another beat of silence. Freddie shifted his weight from one foot to another in guilt. Then, in a serious voice, he confessed, “I’m going to ask for the hand of your cousin Corinne.”
Abby gave a short gasp, as if she’d been in physical pain. She dropped onto the settee as if her legs could not support her, her skirts obscuring Andres’s view. Freddie sat beside her, his polished evening shoes two feet from Andres’s nose.
Andres knew who Corinne was. She was the duke of Banfield’s daughter, one of the willowy blondes.
“Abby, please,” Freddie said, “you knew there could never be anything between us. You knew.”
“No, I didn’t know,” she confessed with the bald honesty Andres was deciding he liked. “You love me.” It wasn’t a question but a statement.
“I do,” Freddie hurried to agree, but there was something not quite right in his tone. A hesitation, a forced sincerity. A man could hear it in another man’s voice.
Women rarely did … and Abby was no exception. “Then why aren’t you asking for my hand? Why, when we have a chance to be together, are you choosing another? And my cousin, Freddie? Have you no sensibility to how I feel?”
“That’s why I thought to speak to you before it is announced, Abby. Please, you know Mother and Father will not agree to a match between us. We went over this three years ago. Father refuses to have someone in trade in the family.”
“My father is a banker.”
“And my father is old-fashioned and sets his own rules on what is what. You know he doesn’t see differences in what a man does. As far as he is concerned, there are the upper ten thousand and then there is everyone else.”
“My uncle is the duke of Banfield. My family lines are perfectly acceptable.”
“Except for your mother marrying beneath herself.”
“It’s a very good thing she did,” Abby returned stoutly. “Father’s intelligence about money has rescued the whole family. Otherwise my uncle the duke wouldn’t be able to afford this ball, let alone Corinne’s dowry.”
Andres now knew who Abby was. Banker Montross’s daughter. Her father’s business acumen was legendary. Everything the man touched turned to gold.
And, yes, he was related to Banfield, but it was said he was a hard man, a coarse one. Banfield was rumored to not be overly fond of Montross although he tolerated him as his sister’s husband. And Andres had heard a rumor about the daughter. Something about a marriage that had gone wrong—
“As for sensibilities, Abby, what about my feelings?” Freddie said. “How do you think I felt when you agreed to marry another man?”