Friday, May 18, 2018

His Christmas Match (A Gentleman’s Guide to Once Upon a Time #4) (A Gentleman's Guide to Once Upon a Time)



Berkshire, England, November, 1814

Rosalind Valentine jerked her head up at the slam of the door. Goodness, who would do such a thing? From her place on the floor at the far side of the room, she glanced over to her employer, Lady Sandlin, who frowned and shifted toward the entrance. Heavy, booted feet pounded toward their sitting room, and Lady Sandlin stood. Rosalind returned her attention to her two charges; the soon-to-be four-year-old twins were completely undisturbed by the unusual interruption. 
Where were the servants, and why hadn’t they announced the new arrival? Had the intruder barged into the manor without knocking and waiting for the door to be answered?
“Phoebe, where are you?”
Rosalind sucked in a breath. That wasn’t Lord Sandlin’s voice. What gentleman would dare storm into the Sandlin household in such a manner yelling for Lady Sandlin by her given name? Rosalind placed a doll in Heather’s arms and a soldier into Campbell’s pudgy hand and prepared to sweep the children up and out of the room if necessary. Whoever was stomping toward this room was angry by his tone, and it was her duty to protect her charges.
“I’m in here, Noah,” Lady Sandlin called, and Rosalind’s heart ceased for a moment before it began pounding anew. Noah? As in Marques Felding? Lady Sandlin’s older brother? Rosalind hadn’t seen him in since last Christmas when he attended services with his family at her uncle’s church.
Rosalind looked for a way to escape the room to shield her presence from him, but Lord Felding charged into the room thrusting a piece of parchment out in front of him. “What exactly is the meaning of this?” he demanded. 
He was still the most handsome gentleman Rosalind had ever encountered. His sandy blonde hair was windblown, probably because he had ridden over instead of taking a carriage such a distance, and his light brown eyes were darker than normal. Was it from anger? Odd, she had never known him to show anything but kindness and often, when with her brothers, laughter. In those situations, his eyes were always a rich brown and warmed her to her toes. Not that he ever noticed her. She had dreamt about him for years. He was the one who played center role in her pretend world of what if I was a lady? It was silly of course because she wasn’t a lady and had no hopes, or any real desire, to become one. Though, if Lord Felding were to happen to take notice of her, Rosalind would not mind in the least.
Lady Sandlin smiled innocently. “I assumed it was self-explanatory. What do you not understand?”
“Why you cannot attend the house party and hunt that Lord and Lady Meadows are hosting.”
Phoebe stood back and held out her arms. “Is my reason more clear now?”
Felding’s eyes grew round and his jaw dropped. He looked his sister over from head to toe. “Are you having twins again?”
Lady Sandlin laughed and braced a hand on the arm of the chair before slowly lowering herself into the seat. “I don’t believe so.” She glanced down at her protruding belly. “Though, one does have to wonder. The babe isn’t to arrive until sometime in February.”
Rosalind should leave the room so the brother and sister could visit in private, but she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. The only way out was through the door Lord Felding just entered. So far, Lord Felding hadn’t even looked in her direction, and as much as she may wish he would notice her, in truth, she did not. It was easier to pretend that he might one day look upon her with more interest than that of the sister of a friend than to face him and receive only a nod in greeting.
“Who is going to keep an eye on Penelope if you are not there?”
Penelope was their younger, second sister and only twenty. She was closer to Rosalind’s younger sisters than to her, though as children, they often played together.
“Is that what this is about?” Lady Sandlin scoffed. “Penny has had two full Seasons without incident. She no longer needs someone watching over her like a mother hen.”
Felding crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head. “She certainly showed more sense than you.”
Lady Sandlin straightened. “I wasn’t as bad as you imply.” A small smile formed on her lips. “Besides, if I had been less impetuous, I might not be married to Taylor now.”
Felding snorted and Rosalind bit her lip to keep from laughing. She had heard a number of rumors of how Lady Sandlin conducted herself during her one and only Season and a few more stories the lady herself had repeated. With distance, they were rather entertaining. At the time, Lady Sandlin could have been ruined beyond repair on more than one occasion.
“Normally, it wouldn’t matter. I would easily be able to keep track of Penelope, but this house party is different.”
“Oh?” Lady Sandlin asked with a raised eyebrow. 
Rosalind tilted her head to study him hoping Lord Felding would explain his comment.
“A lady will be present that I may be interested in courting.”
A knife through her heart would have been less painful, and Rosalind quickly looked away and tried to busy herself with the twins. She should have left the moment he entered; then her world wouldn’t be tumbling down like the stack of blocks Heather just knocked over. The twins laughed, and Rosalind forced a smile. She was a nursemaid to four-year-old twins. It was her lot in life, and she was happy for it. Had Vicar Grant and his wife not taken her and her siblings in her life would not be nearly this pleasant, and she should not wish for things that were above her reach.
Besides, it wasn’t her actual world that crashed . . . just the one she liked to escape to.
“Who has finally caught your attention?” The excitement in Lady Sandlin’s tone drew Rosalind’s attention. Just last week, when Lady Sandlin’s three sisters visited, they had sat in this very room ruminating about the fact that their older brother had not yet taken a bride when most of his friends were already married, and he was two and thirty.
“Lady Jillian Simpson.”
“The Duke of Eldridge’s daughter?”
Did she hear disappointment in Lady Sandlin’s tone? 
“Yes,” Felding confirmed.
Lady Sandlin settled further back in her chair and rested her hands on her protruding belly.  “I am sure your presence will discourage any unwanted attention, and Penelope isn’t the type to run off.”  Lady Sandlin insisted. “And it is the Meadows household, and I am confident they have not invited anyone with whom you would object to.”
Felding stared at his sister as if dumbfounded. “Have you forgotten that it was at a Meadows house party that nearly saw you ruined.”
Lady Sandlin simply shrugged and grinned.
Felding shook his head and turned away to pace. “I don’t want the distraction,” he argued. “I suggested she remain home, but Penny refused.”
“Of course she did!”
“So what am I to do?” He pushed his fingers through his hair and paced at the end of the room. “I must have someone who can watch over Penny and not be distracted.”
Lady Sandlin lifted and eyebrow in humor. “A companion? We no longer have a governess at our disposal.”
He stopped and stared at her with hope in his eyes. “Do you think we might hire one?”
“For a simple house party?” Lady Sandlin laughed. 
“Then what do you suppose I do?”
“Nothing. It is a simple house party. Penelope will have a grand time, and you will be able to court Lady Jillian.”
“It is not that simple,” Lord Felding ground out and began pacing anew. “I will not be able to give attention to the matter as I wish if I have to worry about what Penny is up to, or who may wish to pursue her.”
Lady Phoebe leaned forward with interest. Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head. “Why the sudden hurry to court Lady Jillian?” Lady Sandlin asked with curiosity? “Are you in love with her?”
Felding shook his head but said nothing.
“If not love, then why the rush, unless you hope to make a Christmas Match?” Lady Sandlin chuckled and relaxed back in her seat. “I had no idea you were so romantic.”
“I would like the matter for my future settled,” Felding grumbled. “The quicker that is done the better, and I don’t want to endure another Season without a betrothal or marriage.”
“You sound like a miss facing her third Season with no prospect of a husband in sight.” Lady Sandlin laughed.
“Are you going to help me or not?” Lord Felding demanded.
Rosalind bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. The two of them reminded Rosalind much of her and brothers on the rare occasions they were together. She missed the teasing and bickering siblings shared.
“I still don’t think it is necessary that you have someone attend Penelope,” Lady Sandlin insisted.
Lord Felding turned and stared at his sister. “House parties can be very dangerous, as you well know.”
Rosalind looked away again, heat infused her cheeks. Nobody needed to tell her how dangerous they were. It was the reason she was no longer with her last employer. A simple mistake, gossip, and innuendo had ruined her. Thankfully, Lady Sandlin didn’t put stock in what she heard, and believed Rosalind’s version of the events involving her and Mr. David Thorn. Shortly after the incident, Lady Sandlin offered her a position within this household despite the rumors.
“If it is that important to you,” Lady Sandlin began, “why don’t you ask Rosalind to watch over Penelope? I can assure you that Penny would prefer Rosalind over an old, strict matron you are likely to employ.”
Rosalind’s head jerked up. Surely, Lady Sandlin did not mean her. There must be another Rosalind she didn’t know about.
“Rosalind Valentine?” Lord Felding asked. 
At least he thought of her first when the name was mentioned which warmed her heart. Though, she could very well be the only Rosalind of his acquaintance.
“Yes,” Lady Sandlin brightened.
Lord Felding pushed his fingers through his hair and blew out a breath. Perhaps she should make her presence known before he said something she did not want to hear.
“She would be perfect,” he said a moment later nodding his head and settled on the seat beside his sister. “She knows very well the dangers a house party can offer.”
Inwardly, Rosalind cringed. Surely, Lord Felding didn’t believe those horrible rumors; the very ones that saw to her ruination so that she could never show her face in society again. Not that she had been part of society only a governess in a lord’s household. Not only was her reputation ruined because of that one night, but all employment possibilities as well. Thank goodness Lady Sandlin believed her.
“The rumors are not true,” Lady Sandlin said.
Lord Felding’s head jerked up. “Of course not.” He seemed almost offended that Lady Sandlin might think he actually believed the gossip.
Rosalind blew out a sigh of relief. She would hate for him to think she had succumbed to a rake’s seduction.
“Thorn was bloody drunk but not so drunk he didn’t remember the night. He tried his best to deflate the gossip but it did no good.”
A small smile pulled at Rosalind’s lips. Thorn had told the truth over and over but those at the party were more interested in potential scandal than the truth.
“I’ll call on Valentine House when I return home. I assume Rosalind has returned to live with Vicar Grant and his wife.”
“She is right there, Noah.” Lady Sandlin gestured in Rosalind’s direction. 
Rosalind’s face flooded with heat when Lord Felding came to his feet. Clearly, he had not noticed she was in the room. Drat, she should have somehow alerted him to her presence before now. What would he think of her sitting quietly as they discussed Lady Penelope and Rosalind’s debacle of last spring before the Season had even begun?
She slid the toys from her lap and came to her feet and offered a quick curtsey. “Good afternoon, Lord Felding.”
Why was Miss Rosalind Valentine sitting on the floor in the back of the room playing with the twins?
Noah hadn’t seen Miss Valentine since last winter during Christmas Eve services to be exact. Even then, he only glimpsed her in the front pews with the rest of her family. They hadn’t spoken. A few days later he learned from her older brother that she had left for Cheshire to be a governess to the daughters of Lord and Lady Filpott. 
Thank goodness he had not said anything else about what happened to her last spring. Not that he ever believed she would allow Thorn to seduce her or that she had set about to trap Thorn into marriage as Thorn’s aunt, Lady Filpott, had insisted. If Noah had been at that house party, he would have seen to it that all rumor, gossip, and innuendo were stifled. 
“Miss Valentine, I did not realize you were visiting Phoebe.”
The blush on her rounded cheeks grew darker. “I am not visiting, Lord Sandlin. I am the nursery maid.”
So his sister had given her a position when nobody else in society would dare. Good for Phoebe.
“I apologize. I hadn’t realized you were in the room, or I would have greeted you.” He barely noticed the young maid, head bent down and sitting with the children when he entered. He was too angry at Phoebe’s letter to let the presence of a servant bother him, and then he completely forgot anyone else was in the room.
“I should have announced my presence, but I did not wish to interrupt.”
“I’ve known you since you were a child,” Noah reminded her though she was far different than the skinny, red-haired girl that had once teased her brothers. “You have no reason to stand on ceremony especially in my sister’s home.”
Before him stood a remarkable young woman. Her once red hair was closer to a warm auburn. Why hadn’t he ever noticed her eyes were a deep blue? Miss Valentine was a beautiful young woman. She should not be hidden away in the country as a nursemaid. If he remembered correctly, she would be five and twenty now. Why hadn’t she married?
He already knew the answer and didn’t really need to ask. Those in Valentine House had secrets. Some he had been speculated on, and the Valentine brothers had let slip on occasion.  Because of those very secrets, he doubted any of the sisters would ever marry or allow themselves to be in a position to marry. 
Phoebe cleared her throat, bringing Noah out of his thoughts. Goodness, he was staring at Miss Valentine and not saying a word. When had he become so rude and inconsiderate? Miss Valentine’s complexion took on a deeper hue of pink. He should not have embarrassed her, but he certainly couldn’t voice his thoughts.
“Would you act as Penelope’s companion at the house party being hosted by Lord and Lady Meadows?”
Miss Valentine worried her bottom lip and blinked at him. “I should remain with my charges.” She gestured to the children still playing quietly on the floor beside her feet.
Lady Sandlin shifted in her seat. “The children will get by without you for the week or two,” she insisted. “This will give you the opportunity to see to a young woman and not need to wipe a nose every few moments.” Lady Sandlin grinned. “I assure you, Penelope can attend her own nose if necessary.”
A small smile graced Miss Valentine’s full lips. “It is kind of you to think of me, but my duty is to you.”
“And I am insisting you attend my sister.” Lady Sandlin pushed herself up off of the settee.  “If I know my brother, he will not give Penny a moment’s peace and be with her constantly.” She came forward and grasped Rosalind’s hands. “I am sure she would be grateful for your presence.”
Though Noah didn’t appreciate how Phoebe viewed him, he didn’t argue. He needed Miss Valentine to chaperone Penelope so he was free to purse Lady Jillian.
“I don’t have the proper wardrobe, and I am not sure exactly what a companion does,” Miss Valentine said to both Noah and Phoebe.
“I am sure your clothing is perfectly acceptable,” Noah insisted. His friends weren’t such high sticklers that they would deny her entrance because Miss Valentine wasn’t in the height of fashion. Besides, this was to be a casual house party with much of the time spent hunting.
Sadness clouded Miss Valentine’s eyes. “What would others think if I was chaperoning a young woman?” 
She didn’t have to add after what occurred last spring, but Noah assumed that was what she was thinking. “There will be a different set of guests than those you encountered earlier in the year,” he assured. “Besides, if anyone were to say anything to you, I would make my displeasure known.”
“It is not your place to defend me, Lord Felding, but I thank you just the same.”
He smiled gently down at her. Miss Rosalind Valentine was always a sweet, good-natured girl with a bit of mischief. “As I said earlier, I’ve known you since you and your siblings came to live at Valentine House. I do feel it is my duty to defend you if one of your brothers isn’t present.” He glanced over at Phoebe who was smiling sadly at Miss Valentine before he looked back at the young woman. “And, I can assure you that your brothers would do the same for my sisters if it was necessary.”
A memory tickled in his brain of seeing the guest list and Noah brightened. “As a matter of fact, I believe two of your brothers are invited guests.”
Miss Valentine blinked in surprise. Perhaps this would convince her to attend as Penelope’s chaperone. She could even be considered a guest as long as she knew her first duty was to see to Penelope though he didn’t suspect Miss Valentine ever shirked a duty in her life. 
“Demetrius and Benedick are both invited,” he added.
Her brow furrowed. “Will they be attending?”
Noah rubbed his chin trying to recall if Meadows had received a response from the brothers.  “Demetrius will certainly be there. I am not sure of Benedick.”
She bit her lip again and looked over at Phoebe. Was Miss Valentine finally considering the possibility? This would be a perfect opportunity for her. She would be able to visit with those who were friends with her brothers, make new acquaintances, and hopefully put the rumors of the past to rest. Noah also knew that she would remain by Penelope’s side during their entire visit freeing him to pursue Lady Jillian. “Please?” he asked.
Her shoulders lifted and dropped with a sigh. “If Lady Sandlin believes I should . . .”
A smile burst on Phoebe’s lips. “Of course I think you should. You will have a wonderful time.”
Miss Valentine tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “I will be attending Miss Penelope not attending a party,” she reminded them.
“And my brother will make his Christmas match,” Lady Sandlin teased Felding with a laugh.

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