Excerpt: The Rake Who Loved Christmas

Christmas wasn’t fashionable. The languid denizens of the London beau monde cared little for the winter holiday. Oh, the tedium of having to prepare Christmas boxes for the servants and tenants. Such a bore to make merry with one’s relations. As for dragging around Yule logs and bringing in greenery, it did terrible things to the perfection of one’s garments.

This year Sir Devlyn Stratton didn’t have to worry about holly prickles snagging his coat or mud on his boots. His broad shoulders would not be put to the undignified task of hauling half a tree trunk. He was spending Christmas in London.

He dodged out of the emporium in High Holborn, keeping an eye open for anyone who might have strayed out of the more refined parts of town. At Noah’s Ark, famous as the best toy shop in London, he’d had his choice of rocking horses for his nephew, who at three was begging for a living pony, but would be satisfied, for now, with the splendid dapple gray on green rockers. He bought a set of carved wooden animals for four-year-old Maria, the cows, pigs, and horses so perfect he wanted to play with them himself. But his oldest sister and her family weren’t coming south this winter. Neither would he see seven-year-old Sally arrange the lavish doll’s house. His purchases would be packed and sent by carrier to Yorkshire by Mr. Hamley, the proprietor of the store.

Devlyn was doing his shopping early, which had the advantage that no chance acquaintance had seen him in the shop jumping a wooden horse over a fence or pondering miniature drawing room furniture. Next, gifts for his mother, grandmother, and younger sisters. The feminine brigade was to join him soon at his Curzon Street house. He preferred them to remain in Sussex where they would not interfere with the pursuit of pleasures unsuitable for the ears of ladies. They belonged in Sussex, to be visited at his leisure, as was the proper order of things. So it had been since he left university and came to town to sample the array of delights available to a young man of good birth and ample fortune.

Mud from a passing dray, more noisome than country dirt, splashed his breeches. Truth to tell, he would miss the greenery gathering, log dragging, Christmas box giving, etc. For Devlyn had a secret shame he kept well hidden from his fellow sportsmen and men about town.

He loved Christmas.

Worse still, he loved giving gifts. Others pretended to. They sent their wives or secretaries out with a list and did their duty by their dependents. But Devlyn enjoyed hunting down the perfect object for each and every servant, tenant, or aged aunt. He loved the anticipation of their pleasure, surpassed only by his secret satisfaction when their faces told him he’d chosen well.

Usually, the ceremony of exchanging gifts took place in the great hall, the Yule log in the ancient hearth. No room for that in his London house with its small, efficient fireplaces burning coal.

In Oxford Street he ordered a pair of shotguns for his brother Merrick, who would soon be shooting on his own estate. The emporia of Mayfair yielded pearls for the girls, Emma and Susan, and a diamond brooch for his mother. He spent a full hour picking out huge paisley shawls of the finest cashmere for all the ladies. In St. James’s he ordered hogsheads of port and sherry at Berry Bros. and hampers of delicacies from Fortnum & Mason for far-flung cousins. Great-Aunt Emma was especially partial to their scotch eggs.

An item in the window of a small curio shop caught his eye—a small gilded cage containing a jewel-studded bird. Drawn like a magpie into the tiny shop, he admired the diamond wings and ruby breast, but the bright emerald eyes attracted him most. That and the melody of an old French love song that played when the proprietor released the hidden mechanism. The work of the celebrated Jaquet-Droz, the shopkeeper’s pretty wife assured him, and named an appropriately celebrated price. With no one in mind for the toy, he bought it anyway. It was always handy to have an extra gift. A bird for a ladybird, perhaps. Except the piece didn’t seem right for the kind of woman he usually showered with expensive jewelry.

A few yards from Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly he encountered a familiar figure. A gentleman does not carry parcels, and Devlyn, naturally, had ordered all his purchases delivered to his house. Tarquin Compton managed to look impeccable with a brown package under his arm.

“Book shopping again, Compton?” The dandy’s exquisite taste was complemented by his renown as a collector of rare volumes.

“What else? Not that Hatchards has much to offer of a recherché nature. Still, I managed to find a nice edition of Pope’s Homer while hiding from ghastly old women pretending not to be looking for the latest Byron.”

“Where’s Iverley? You usually hunt in pairs.”

“Sebastian is in Shropshire. He’s to be married.”

“Good Lord. The girl must be mad.”

Compton grinned. “I would have thought him the last man to succumb. Watch out, Stratton. The hounds will be snapping at your feet next.”

“Not I. The only thing I’m shopping for is a book.”

“I’ll let you brave the horde of beldames.”

“I think I’ll avoid the place.” He paused, thwarted by the fear of his mother’s gossiping friends spying on his purchases. “Pity there isn’t another bookshop nearby.”

“There is. On the Shelf is just around the corner in Duke Street.”

“Is that really the name of a bookshop? It seems too good to be true.”

“It belongs to a man called Merriweather. Its real name is Duke Street Books or some such thing, but the old man’s daughter began to stock it with volumes of particular interest to ladies. It became infested with spinsters, and some wag with a bellyful of wine and a pail of red paint embellished the sign.”

“The sort of thing that happens when you attract ladies so close to Jermyn Street and all the gentlemen’s lodgings.”

“Precisely. Looking for Christmas gifts, are you?”

“Just something to read. And I vastly prefer young ladies to old. The ladders in bookshops offer such possibilities for judging a woman’s ankles.”

On the Shelf proved to be a somewhat shabby place with ranks of shelves up to the high ceiling and a rolling ladder to meet his ankle-gazing requirements. The only man in the place, a dark fellow with a foreign air, appeared to be asleep, leaning against a bookshelf. Dev made a note to avoid that section unless suffering from insomnia.

Being Dev, he appraised three or four young women, none of them, alas, braving the ladder. Another conducted a transaction with a young woman whom he took to be the opinionated daughter of the owner. The arrival of a voluptuous, fair woman with a tiny waist drew a silent whistle. A widow.

The gorgeous creatures of the demimonde who had enthralled his youthful self no longer held the same appeal, the reason why his other house had remained empty for months. A lady of birth with some conversation and secret vices might be just what he needed. But the unrelieved black garb of the blond beauty denoted a recent bereavement. Too soon.

He scanned the shelves for novels, until, in the depths of the shop, four letters on the spines of a three-volume work caught his eye. When he reached for them, his hand collided with that of a browsing female he’d failed to notice in the corner.

“I do beg your pardon…” His words faded away.

Mossy-green eyes set in an oval face looked up from under the brim of her bonnet. A low burr infused his head, and a delicious paralysis seized his limbs. He gaped down at her, vocal cords and brain turned to sponge. He tugged off his glove, his hand aching to touch a smooth cheek. He almost did it before an inner voice of decorum and common sense warned him that caressing the face of an unknown lady in a public place was just not done. It was the kind of behavior likely to lead to hysterics and the summoning of the constable.

Heat tinged his cheeks, and he returned to a normal state of consciousness, unable to take his eyes off her. Who was she? A well-bred lady, surely, but not one he’d ever met. And he knew everyone.

Then she smiled, just a tentative widening of soft lips. He had a momentary sensation of falling. Wrenching his gaze from that face, he realized the bare wooden floor had not turned into a mill race and his boot-clad feet stood firm.

“We are interested in the same book,” she said. Her voice was all he could wish, the mundane words a carol of laughter and joy.

Who was she? If this was a spinster, every man in England belonged in Bedlam.

“Yes.” His powers of address, equal to the charming of dowagers and courtesans, had deserted him.

“Are you fond of novels? Miss Merriweather makes a point of stocking all the new ones.”

Right. That’s why the place was full of women.

“Do you come here often?”

She lowered her lids, displaying thick, dark lashes. “Annabelle Merriweather is a friend.”

“Which is Annabelle?”

“At the counter, speaking to Miss Hooper.”

“I hear the shop is popular with the ladies.”

“Indeed. We sometimes scare off the gentlemen.”

“I am not easily frightened.”

“I would imagine not.”

“Why is that?”

“You seem a gentleman of unusual size and strength.”

She was flirting with him, by God. “You flatter me, madam.” He glanced at her left hand, but her glove would hide any wedding ring. She was no dewy-eyed debutante, perhaps twenty-five or -six. Surely his fellow men hadn’t let this one get away. Unless… The notion that she might not be a lady of virtue aroused the instinct of the hunter.

“You didn’t answer my question about novels.” She certainly wasn’t shy.

“What would you guess about my tastes?”

“I would take you for a Waverley man. Tales of adventures and derring-do. Or perhaps epic poetry with noble verse as an excuse for sensational action.”

“Does one need an excuse for sensation?”

Wise woman, she declined to respond, averting her head to offer him a view of her profile. The tiniest bump in her nose marred the line, intriguing him with a hint of imperfection. At the back of his mind he assessed her figure—not overly slender and well proportioned— and her garments: a well-cut redingote of dark green wool topped with a bonnet trimmed with matching ribbons and one small feather that added a certain dash. Fair quality, but neither of the first stare nor the latest fashion. Her gloves were not new. She dressed like a respectable lady, perhaps lately come from the provinces. Yet the gleam in her eye, the coquettish curve of her mouth contradicted him.

She removed a glove, her right unfortunately, took the first volume of Emma from the shelf, and opened it. “By the author of Pride and Prejudice,” she said. “I don’t think this is what you are looking for. Not much sensation here.”

“I am looking for a gift for my sister who happens to be named Emma. Do you have any suggestions?”

“What does she like?”

“Being sixteen, Emma prefers the sensational. Ghosts, mad monks, and a heroine kidnapped by an evil foreign nobleman.”

“I have read Pride and Prejudice, and I doubt anything by its author will answer to that description.”

“But Emma is not the only one I must satisfy. Our grandmother, who is not backward in expressing her opinions, believes that books for young girls should convey a high moral tone.”

“Miss Hannah More, perhaps?”

“Grandmama gave Emma a copy of Practical Piety last year, and, I regret to say, my sister left the volume out in the rain.”

“Quite by accident, I am sure.”