Last Christmas the Earl Stole her Heart by Lisa Campell

CHAPTERONE

Rose Hudson sat at the pianoforte and allowed her fingers to linger over the keys as she took in a deep breath. The scent of roses lingered in the air – that was the work of her stepmother, Marianne, the Viscountess Hudsingham. Lady Hudsingham was the kind of hostess who paid attention to every minuscule detail when entertaining.

The viscountess made sure the maids cleaned every surface their guests might come in contact with, perfumed each common area, and made sure flowers were put out to her specifications. She was, in short, a born hostess. Rose, on the other hand, preferred quiet and tranquility. Why people had to make a fuss and host balls and fancy dinners all the time, she didn’t understand.

Alas, it was not up to her. Sometimes her home no longer felt like a home, not since her mother's death seven years ago.

“Rose?” Her stepsister Letty poked her head through the open door. “The guests have arrived. You’re wanted in the drawing room. Mama is already vexed you missed the receiving line.”

The receiving line, she suddenly remembered with dread. She’d been on her way to join her family in the grand parlor, which was richly adorned with Spanish tapestries and marble statues of Greek gods, when the quiet of the music room called to her. Rose often found herself escaping into a world of her own – one surrounded by books, preferably. Today, however, she’d been so lost in thought that she’d missed the receiving line, an offense her stepmother would not soon forget.

“Very well,” she said. “You look lovely, Letty.”

Her stepsister blinked but then broke into a smile. She swayed left and right so Rose could better admire her primrose-colored taffeta gown. She’d paired it with a black and yellow bandeau that gave her auburn-colored hair a beautiful, distinct appearance. Rose had always found herself a little envious of Letty’s lovely hair, her own light blonde tresses being long and thick and thus difficult to manage. Tonight, Rose had pinned her hair around her head with an array of black pins adorned with flowers to complement her light blue gown. Not that she much cared for fashion – it was Marianne, her stepmother, who usually selected her gowns for her, as her mother had once done.

The chatter in the drawing room grew louder and louder as she walked down the empty halls after her stepsister. It was rather odd, she thought, that she, Letty, and Letty’s twin sister, Hetty had been connected by way of their parents for more than six years now, and yet she didn’t feel any particular connection to them. Hetty was perhaps the one she was closer to, but that was solely because they each knew they were behind Letty in the pecking order within the household. Letty was their mother’s favorite, and while she loved her twin, she never tired of letting both Rose and Hetty know who came first. Rose, meanwhile, remained closer to her best friend, Lady Mary, than to either of these so-called sisters.

With a sigh, she stood in the arched doorway of the drawing room and canvassed the merry group assembled before her. She knew most of the attendees, as they were friends of her father’s. Her stepmother was presently engaged in conversation with Lady Maxwell, one of the most avid readers of the scandal sheets – and, if Rose was not mistaken, an anonymous contributor to such publications.

The moment her stepmother spotted her; the older woman darted to her side.

“Rose, I expected you in the receiving line. Where were you?” she hissed under her breath.

“A trifling headache, I’m afraid,” Rose replied as her stepmother ushered her forward past several guests who greeted her warmly. Among them was Lady Charlotte, Lady Maxwell’s daughter. A vapid young lady who was rather close to the twins.

“It is impolite to miss the receiving line. You mortified your father and me. Now, come. I must introduce you to a dear cousin of mine,” her stepmother explained as they headed toward Rose’s father, who stood beside a short, rotund, red-eyed gentleman who wore a rather unpleasant smirk.

“Rose, there you are. We missed you earlier,” her father said in a gentle yet chiding tone. Rose swallowed. Why was it, she wondered, that her father could make her feel guilt with just a glance? Why was it that to disappoint him always felt like a stab in Rose’s heart? She was about to apologize when her stepmother drew her attention toward the red-eyed gentleman.

“Rose, this is my cousin, John Buckley, Baron Tibley. John, this is my stepdaughter, Lady Rose Hudson.”

Rose curtsied, as was customary, but noted that Lord Tibley had extended his hand for her to take. Reluctantly, she extended it to him, and she watched as he pulled her hand toward his thin, dry lips. It took all of her resolve to stop from shivering as his lips connected with her hand. She sent a silent prayer of thanks to the heavens for the blessing of the glove that kept her from having to feel the sensation of his lips on her skin.

“A pleasure,” he said in a cold and spine-chilling voice. “I was just talking to your dear papa about a meeting I took earlier this week with Lord Liverpool, the prime minister. It seems his wife heard that my imported spices and teas are superior to those of my competitors, and she would like to see about my supplying the prime minister’s office, and perhaps even court.”

Rose forced a smile upon her lips. She did not care for people who boasted, especially to people they’d just met.

“Isn’t that grand, Rose? John has been ever so successful since he got into the tea and spice business. He is already the premier importer in the country. And now even the Prince Regent might be using his services,” her stepmother smiled.

“Indeed. I already have some of the highest-ranking lords and ladies among my customers,” Lord Tibley continued and then suddenly turned to Rose’s father. The pride in his voice troubled Rose, as it was clear from his tone that he wasn’t simply pleased with his success; he was exceedingly proud and conceited. “Lord Wellington came into my shop just the other day. Can you believe it? The hero of Waterloo himself and he said to me, ‘Lord Tibley,’ he said…”

Just then, to Rose’s great relief, the dinner bell rang and interrupted the boastful gentleman before he could give a detailed report on his interaction with Lord Wellington. While Rose wasn’t particularly hungry, she entered the dining room with her mind a little more at ease. Alas, the emotion was not to last, for – to her mortification – she found that she’d been seated opposite Lord Tibley. This struck her as rather peculiar, as she ought to have been seated near someone higher ranking, given that she was the host’s eldest daughter.

She considered begging her stepsister Hetty to switch places with her but found it too late as Letty’s twin already sat on the other end of the table, engaged in conversation with Lady Charlotte. She could not ask Letty, as she had a habit of being rather too dramatic and would create a scene before switching seats.

Besides, the seating arrangements were another of her stepmother’s tasks when it came to planning dinners. Rose could not afford to upset the lady further. Thus, she did her very best to put on her politest smile and prayed that dinner might pass quickly.

The plea remained unanswered. For two seemingly never-ending, tedious hours, she had to contend with Lord Tibley’s tales about his encounters with the richest, most famous members of their society. All of these encounters ended with him making vast friends with them and increasing his business, or so he claimed.

“You must be the most famed trader in all of England, Lord Tibley. You’ll find yourself knighted for your services in due course,” she said. The sarcasm in her voice was quite evident to those around her, but the vapid lord before her didn’t take note of it.

“You are kind, Lady Rose. I am in good hopes.” He beamed and placed a large piece of venison in his mouth. As he chewed, Rose noted that his eyes wandered down to where her gown met her bosom. To her mortification, his eyes remained there until she shifted in her seat, uncomfortable at this obvious breach of manners.

She looked to her right, toward her stepmother, certain she’d distract her cousin to keep him from doing such a disturbing thing again. But to Rose’s surprise, the other woman didn’t. Instead, her stepmother nodded encouragingly at her cousin.

A cold shiver ran down her spine again. What was her stepmother thinking, Rose questioned. How could she allow her cousin to look at her in so lustful a way? It was uncouth, improper, and a rebuke of some sort was in order after dinner. However, she got a distinct feeling that her stepmother would do no such thing.

For the remainder of the meal, she found herself subjected to Lord Tibley’s stares and leers, along with assorted winks and comments of his admiration for her. Her appetite had evaporated fully, as she thought desperately of ways to escape his company. When at last the dessert – a delicious looking flummery – was taken away without her eating so much as a bite of it, she let out a sigh of relief. Her father stood and directed the gentlemen toward the billiards room for a game of cards and cognac.

“I look forward to joining you in the drawing room later,” Lord Tibley said with yet another wink of his beady eyes. Rose watched as a pearl of sweat separated from his bushy eyebrow and ran down his shiny, round face, and shuddered in disgust.

“As do I,” she forced herself to say before departing with the other ladies into the drawing room.

* * *

“It will be grand! I shall dress as a sultana,” Letty exclaimed a little while later as the ladies gathered in the drawing room.

“No, I wish to be a sultana,” Hetty answered, quite indignantly.

“I said it first,” Letty replied in a stern tone that allowed for no refusal.

Rose looked over her shoulder at the assembled crowd. Her stepmother sat on the chaise lounge, her friend, Lady Maxwell, on one side of her while her daughter, Lady Charlotte, and an assortment of their friends gathered around her.

“You can both be sultanas. We will have costumes made in different colors. So, there is no need to fret,” their mother said, a slight hint of annoyance in her voice. “It will be the best masquerade ball of the Christmas season. We will spare no expense.”

Rose turned back to the window, quite puzzled that a ball could cause such excitement, especially a masquerade ball. She had no use for such frivolous things. Of course, she thought to herself, she was rather peculiar when it came to her aversion to balls and social events. She found them dull, for the only topics of conversation were the costumes and gowns and the latest on dit – and Rose couldn’t have cared less about those things.

She let out a deep sigh as she looked out of the window, but suddenly, a smile appeared on her face.

“Snow,” she exclaimed. Momentarily, Hetty joined her side and peeked out into the dark, where white snowflakes danced down toward the ground below. Briefly, Rose and her stepsister smiled at one another.

Hetty clapped her hands together in delight. “Mother, if the snow stays, we can go to Hyde Park and ice skate at the Serpentine. It will be magnificent!” Her stepsister sashayed away as quickly as she’d come, leaving Rose to look out into the increasingly white landscape.

Rose smiled as she remembered the last winter before her mother’s death. They’d spent it at her father’s country seat in Shropshire. Oh, how lovely a time they’d had. The three of them had built a snowman and fired snowballs at one another as their laughter filled the air.

That peaceful life was gone, long gone. In its place, she had a stepmother and sisters who were nothing like her. Rose thought of just how different the two ladies who’d filled the role of mother in her life were. While her mother had come from humble origins, the daughter of a skilled physician who herself was well versed in the art of herbs, her stepmother was brought up to be a lady. Her mother, Tabitha Hudson, had always told Rose she could do anything in life she set her mind to, while Marianne seemed to think that nothing mattered but making a good match.

“Rose,” her stepmother’s voice pierced the air. “You ought to join us and decide on a costume for the ball. You must make a good impression so you can find yourself a young lord to set your cap on. Your father wishes it. You’ve already had two failed Seasons.”

Rose turned, a heaviness settling in her heart at the thought of how different her life would have been if her mother hadn’t died. Her mother would never have pressured Rose into courting the way Marianne did.

“Woolgathering won’t get you a husband. It only leads to spinsterhood, my dear,” the lady continued.

Lady Maxwell nodded at this. “Indeed, my cousin turned down several offers of courtship, just as you did. I am sure you can imagine her fate. She’s a governess now, tending to someone else’s children rather than having her own.” She clicked her tongue as if this was the worst possible fate anyone could ever meet.

“I am not inclined to accept a courtship from a gentleman I find unpleasant. However, I think a lady ought to strive for more than to marry a gentleman for the sake of being married. A lady ought to be with someone who excites her, entertains her, and respects her.”

Lady Maxwell scoffed at this, and her stepmother rolled her eyes.

“Rose, you will never find a husband with that kind of thinking. I blame your mother – she filled your head with these silly ideas. Well, we will rectify this yet. Your father wishes you to marry, and soon. You cannot afford another failed Season.”

Anger rose within Rose’s chest at the mention of her mother. How dare her stepmother speak badly of the woman who’d birthed her? It was unconscionable. She curled her fingers into fists and stared at her stepsisters, who watched the exchange eagerly.

“If I recall correctly, I was not the only one who didn’t have a match by the end of the Season,” Rose said, her head tilted to one side as she allowed her eyes to linger on her stepmother.

Hetty’s mouth dropped open at this insult at the hands of someone who was usually her ally, while Letty’s eyes narrowed as she fired a furious glare at Rose.

“Now, now. It is not necessary to be so cruel. Besides, Letty and Hetty only came out last year, and that was their first Season. This next Season will be a smashing success for them, I know it. And it must be for you, as well. Anyhow, that is why I am hosting this masquerade ball, to ensure all of my daughters come away with a husband this year.” The lady blinked at Rose, but there was no kindness in her gaze, only thinly veiled rancor.

Rose nodded slowly and then stood up. As she smoothed her gown, she smiled at the assembled round as politely as she could. “I shall think thoroughly about a suitable costume, I promise. But for now, I must take my leave of your company, as I’m afraid my headache has returned.” She curtsied quickly before she could be challenged, and swiftly departed the room.

* * *

Rose hurried out of the drawing room and along the hall leading to the staircase. She’d had quite enough of this evening. She’d have to find some way of getting out of this terrible masquerade ball because she already –

“….your daughter, Lady Rose,” Lord Tibley’s voice drifted out of the billiards room. Alarmed, Rose stopped in her tracks and hurried toward the door, which stood slightly ajar. She pressed her ear as close to the door as she could and held her breath.

“She is ever so lovely, and my cousin tells me she’s quite accomplished,” Lord Tibley added.

“She is, indeed,” her father replied. “A great beauty, just like her mother was.” Hearing her father speak lovingly of her mother still filled Rose’s heart with warmth to this day.

“I would rather like to court her, with your permission, my lord,” Lord Tibley suddenly said. Rose had to stifle the gasp that escaped her mouth by pressing her hand in front of it. Lord Tibley wanted to court her? What a ludicrous proposition, she thought. He was a terrible, arrogant man full of pride. Surely her father would never –

“I am not at all opposed to the idea, Lord Tibley,” her father replied. Rose’s mouth dropped open at this. How could her father even consider this? Her stomach twisted into knots as she heard her father clear his throat. “I would suggest waiting until after Christmastide, however. This is a difficult time of year for Rose. You may not be aware of this, but her mother passed at this time of year. Courting will be the furthest thing from her mind.”

“Of course, that is quite understandable, my lord. I will gladly give her the time she needs, just as long as there is a promise of courtship in the near future.”

Say no, Papa. Please. Deny him.

Rose held her breath and sent a prayer to the heavens, hoping her father would put the dreadful Lord Tibley in his place. But before she could hear his reply, the sound of footsteps distracted her. Someone was coming down the hall. She could not be caught eavesdropping, it was considered highly offensive, and her stepmother – and father – would be rather angry at her.

Rose turned on her heels and hurried up the stairs as her heart pounded and her thoughts raced. Her father could not possibly consider a courtship with a man as awful as Lord Tibley – or could he?