The Christmas Rose – Emma V. Leech

Felicity Bunting was five and twenty, and on the shelf. Everyone knew it. Well, not any longer. As of ten minutes ago, she had become spectacularly engaged to the wickedest rake in Christendom. Suddenly, the dusty shelf she had resented for so long looked rather appealing, and she wanted to climb back on it and stay there, forgotten and unnoticed. For the first time in her life, the idea was positively blissful. If she was honest with herself, Bunty wished she had organised this dreadful scheme, as everyone obviously believed. If she had been the mastermind behind this horrid scandal, at least she might have felt some sense of power, of having achieved her aim. Instead, she was mortified and ashamed, and wished she could curl herself up very small and hide in a corner… though the idea of buxom Felicity Bunting being able to appear small was laughable in itself. In a world where the ideal woman was slender, wraithlike, and prone to fainting, Bunty was tall, plump, and in excellent health. She bounced rather than drifted ethereally into a room, and would always prefer to laugh and have another slice of cake than sigh dramatically and appear mysterious and tragic. She was no Gothic heroine, yet somehow she had just made a tragedy of her own life. And not just hers. “It will be all right, Felicity,” her mother told her, though her gaze darted frantically between Bunty’s father and the unwillingly betrothed Lord Courtenay. They had made a hasty exit from the party they’d been attending, only to discover the devilishly handsome lord on their doorstep five minutes later.

Now, Mrs Bunting was huddled with her daughter on a loveseat, and Bunty thought her mama was trembling harder than she was. “Though really, child, why on earth you had to make things worse by saying he wasn’t the man you’d wanted to trap….” “Worse?” Bunty repeated on breath of laughter. It had a slightly hysterical tinge to the sound, so she snapped her mouth shut for a moment before adding, “And that was not at all what I said. I said the trap had not been meant for him. I never said I set the trap, did I? I’m as much a victim of this as he is.” “Well, at least you’ll be married, dear.” Her mother’s voice held a faint note of satisfaction at that, and Bunty stared at her in outrage. Mrs Bunting flushed. “I’m sure he’s not really as bad as the scandal sheets make out,” she added in a rush.

Bunty snorted. She had followed the wicked man’s escapades for years now, and hadn’t the slightest doubt he was far worse. Her husband-to-be—she winced—Lord Courtenay, was speaking to her father on the other side of the room. He radiated tension, as well he might, having just been trapped into marriage. Of course, everyone believed she had arranged it. Why would they not? She was five and twenty years old and had never received an offer of marriage. Not one. There had been Mr Arkwright, three years ago. He had seemed promising, but then someone had sniggered rather too loudly over the fact that Bunty was a full three inches taller than him and she’d never seen him again. Not that she’d been heartbroken, far from it, but still….

She didn’t want to be a spinster, an old maid, a burden to her parents. Not that they would ever say as much, or even think it. For all they despaired of her, they loved her and wanted her to be happy. Well, so much for happiness. Oh, of all the men to trap into marriage, why had it turned out this way? Lord Courtenay, of all people. Just looking at him made her knees feel all trembly and weak. He was just so… large and vibrant and… powerful. Well over six feet tall, he was perhaps one of the few men to whom she had ever stood close and not felt like an Amazon. He had thick, black hair, curled in unruly waves, and his skin was not the pale, insipid colour of most Englishmen in the winter months. Instead, it had a golden tint to it that only added to the impression of virile good health, and then there were his eyes.

Lord Courtenay had eyes the blue of a Mediterranean sea, piercing and utterly swoon-worthy. She sighed. And now he would hate her until the end of time. Marvellous. “Felicity,” her father said, a look in his eyes that suggested he believed she had run mad. If he thought she’d deliberately tied herself in marriage to this devilish fellow, she could hardly blame him. “The arrangements have been made. You’ll marry the day after tomorrow.” Bunty swallowed and dared a glance at Lord Courtenay. His face was a mask.

Her heart quailed. Lord Courtenay—Ludo to his friends—had always smiled at her up until now. She had never tried to fool herself that his smile had any meaning to it, past a faint sense of pity and a naturally amiable temper—well, amiable towards women, anyway. Ludo was a rake of the first order, a hell-born babe, a troublemaker, and a black sheep. He was the youngest son of the Marquess of Farringdon who had thrown him out years ago, and Ludo had responded by putting all his energy into blackening the family name as far as he might. He’d done a spectacular job so far. Yet, unlike many of the men she had encountered, he had never been cruel. Not to her, anyway. There had been no smirking or murmured comments for her to overhear and make her blush with mortification. He had always given her that smile that caused her insides to quiver and made her feel muddled and giddy.

They had not met that often, but for Bunty it had always been a memorable occasion. She had carefully packed away the thoughts of that sensuous mouth curving upwards just for her, to be taken out and relived again and again on the days when she felt alone, fat, and unloved. Now he’d likely wish her to perdition on a daily basis and never smile at her again. Oh, well. Such was her fate. As her mother said, at least she was getting married. Bunty tried not to cry. *** One hour earlier… Lord Ludovic Courtenay, youngest son of the Marquess of Farringdon, was bored. This was usually cause for concern. When Ludo was bored, bad things happened.

To be fair, Ludo did not intend for bad things to happen, not anymore. He had been trying his best to behave himself for over a year now, but he simply appeared to be a magnet for trouble. If there was something brewing within a mile of his person, he would gravitate—quite unknowingly—towards disaster. It was a gift of sorts, and one he was beginning to wish he did not possess. Once upon a time, he had revelled in his ability to create chaos and turn any polite party into a re-enactment of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Gentleman Jackson’s boxing club. Recently, however, it had become a millstone around his neck. He was bored and tired and… lonely. Everything he had always enjoyed had lost any appeal. Brawling and causing trouble had long since failed to satisfy him. He supposed he must be getting old.

A lowering thought. His ballet dancers and opera singers, and all the pretty ladybirds with whom he usually associated were lovely, and good company, and he was very fond of them, but…. But. Ludo sighed and snatched a glass of champagne from a server. He ought not be here. This was not the kind of event he got invited to, which was why he’d had one of his less disreputable friends smuggle him in. The cream of the ton were here, and so he was not welcome. He’d be evicted at any moment, no doubt. “Ludo, what the devil are you doing here?” Ludo looked around to see the cool grey gaze of the Earl of Falmouth upon him. “Falmouth,” Ludo replied, smiling.

“Don’t worry, I’m on my best behaviour.” Falmouth snorted. His wife, the countess, gave a heavy sigh. “Oh, zhat is a pity, and it is such a dull party, too,” she said in her charming French accent. Ludo grinned at her. He liked the earl and his beautiful young wife. Unlike most others present, they were not the least bit stuffy. In fact, if the rumours about the earl were true, he was a dangerous man. Though close to two decades older than his wife, their marriage was a remarkable success. Tall, dark, and vigorous still, he was a striking figure, and his lovely French countess stared up at him as though he’d hung the moon for her alone.

That the two of them adored each other was plain to see, and Ludo was struck by a jolt of something that felt remarkably like jealousy. “Hunting, Ludo?” Falmouth queried. “Hardly,” Ludo lied, and felt an unaccustomed tinge of heat creep up the back of his neck. The fellow was too astute for his own good. Ludo hadn’t even admitted to himself that he’d come hoping to meet a nice young lady, and… and what? The usual experience was one of watching them blush and stammer and then remove themselves from his company as though the devil had come to tea. He supposed it was true enough. He had been so intent on punishing his family over the past years that he’d never stopped to consider he might be punishing himself, too. He’d made a career of showing his so-called father and brothers that he did not want them, just as they had spent his entire childhood vividly illustrated how badly they’d not wanted him, and now… well, now no one else wanted him either. After a few words with Falmouth and his lady, Ludo moved on, draining his glass on the way and snatching up another. Two young ladies passed by, arm-in-arm, chattering merrily until they saw him.

They blanched and skirted around him as if they might be ruined simply by breathing the same air. Irritated, Ludo winked at them and they gasped, hurrying away. He snorted. This was utterly pointless. He did not understand why he had bothered to come tonight. Liar. And there she was. Felicity Bunting was standing talking to Thomas Tindall. Tommy, to his intimates, was the Earl of Stanthorpe, and an easy-going, good-natured chap. Under normal circumstances Ludo liked him, only… only he was making Miss Bunting laugh, and….

Ludo’s chest grew tight. It was ridiculous, really. He didn’t know her at all, had never spoken a word to her. On the rare occasions they had crossed paths, though, he had admired her. There was something wholesome and real about her, as if she was truly who she appeared to be, with no pretence, no façade. Ludo had noticed she laughed often and with no restraint: a rich, joyous sound that made him want to smile. That was such a novelty of late he always gravitated towards her, as though turning towards the sun. She was also gorgeous. Thick brown hair and wide eyes of the same colour complemented a heartshaped face with rosy cheeks that blushed a deeper shade at the slightest provocation. All of that without even considering the body that must lay beneath her gown, and God, did he want to consider it.

She was all curves and softness, and he wanted very badly to seek comfort in her embrace. So, why had he not approached her, demanded a little voice in his head. Because he was a bloody coward. Him, the wickedest rake in London, if the gossip sheets were to be believed, and he was terrified to approach a nice, gently bred lady in case she reacted the same way as all the others. He didn’t want to see her look at him in horror, did not want to see her gasp and take a step back. Which was why he was still dithering here, watching Tommy enjoy her company whilst he stood like a dog outside a butcher’s shop, salivating for something he could not have. Yet, she had always returned his smiles. On the rare occasions they’d been in the same room, she had not looked quickly away. She had met his eyes and held his gaze, and she had smiled back. Every time.

Ludo remembered every one of those occasions, from the very first, when his breath had caught in his throat in astonishment that such a woman should look at him with such open friendliness. That was where it had ended, though, for no one would dare introduce him to her. He’d all but begged on a couple of occasions, but with no joy. What kind of blaggard would introduce a man like him to such a lovely, innocent creature? Not one that Ludo had found. Though, perhaps Tommy…. Ludo moved forward. If he walked straight up to them, Tommy would feel obliged to make the introduction. The poor fellow was too good-natured to cut him. It was a rotten thing to do to such a nice chap, but needs must. “Oh!” Ludo stopped as someone ran into him.

“I beg your pardon,” he said at once, though he was certain it had not been his fault. A woman gazed up at him in horror, a note clutched in her gloved hand. Was that one of the Ratched sisters? Ludo had reached out and taken her elbow to steady her, and now the woman appeared to be in shock. He let her go before she could scream blue murder. She was still staring at him, and still clutching the note. Ludo frowned. “Is that for me?” Her gaze darted wildly around the room. She looked as if she might be sick. “Miss Ratched?” Ludo began, beginning to feel rather awkward. “The note.

Was it meant—” Before he could finish, she thrust the note towards him. Ludo took it from her, at which point she gave a little shriek and ran away. Good Lord! Did she think he would ravish her in full view of the blasted ballroom? Aggrieved, Ludo tore open the note and stared down at it with a frown. Meet me in the library at ten o’clock. B x. Ludo’s breath caught. B. Felicity Bunting was known to her friends and family as Bunty. Surely… Surely she wouldn’t. He looked up, his gaze moving at once to where she was speaking to Tommy, and their eyes met.

She smiled at him, a shy smile that made colour bloom on her cheeks, before she turned away again. Hope rose in his chest. Ridiculous and foolish, for it was far more likely the B in question was a bored wife or a merry widow. There had been enough of those in the past to know it was the most obvious answer. Yet he wanted it to be Bunty, even as he knew he ought not go if it were. Ludo checked his watch. There was an age to wait yet, but he wanted to be sure he knew where to go, and that they were not observed. She was a nice young lady. Innocent. If they were caught….

If they were caught, she would have to marry him. He set down his glass and went in search of the library. *** Bunty seethed with fury. She’d been having a perfectly nice evening—a miracle in itself—when she had taken herself off to the retiring room to freshen up. There, she had heard the Ratched sisters whispering together. The older sister, Jennifer, was already married. The younger, Sylvia, was not, which was something Sylvia intended to rectify this evening. Bunty was only astonished they were working together. The two of them were rivals in all things, and she thought Sylvia a fool to trust her sister to help her. That was neither here nor there, however.

The fact was, they intended to trap Lord Stanthorpe into marriage, and Bunty would put a stop to it. “A Christmas wedding,” Sylvia said, giggling. “And he’s as rich as Croesus, Jenny. Richer than your sweet William.” Bunty left, rushing from the room before they came out from behind the screens and saw her. She pushed her way through the crowd until she found Lord Stanthorpe again. He was right where she’d left him earlier, thank goodness. “Tommy!” she said, grabbing his arm and towing him away from a conversation with Aubrey Russell. “Sorry,” she added over her shoulder to Aubrey as she dragged Tommy across the room. “Whatever has got you in such a pet?” Tommy asked, anxiety in his eyes.

“Oh, Tommy, the Ratched sisters have hatched a scheme. If you get a note from someone signed B, do not believe it is from that pretty Belinda Lovelace you were so taken with. It’s a trap. If you go to the library, as the note suggests, you’ll find Sylvia Ratched waiting for you, and no doubt her sister and friends will burst in moments later.” Tommy blanched, the colour leaving his face so suddenly it might have been funny in other circumstances. “Lud,” he said faintly.

.

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