Having read the earlier book about the midsummer ball I was
thrilled to get my gilt-edged invitation card to the house
party at the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore's country
estate. All the finest unattached men and women joined our cozy
party, some at the request of the Duke of Wellington.
The lavish dining and seasonal entertainments made for a
fine old time. There may have been some SCANDAL AT THE
CHRISTMAS BALL. And I daresay more than one romance was
kindled. What else is the mistle bough for?
Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott collaborated on the
earlier 'Scandal at the Midsummer Ball' with twin novellas
of unlikely romances. Now they return to the same setting
for winter fun and games. Skating, singing, kissing,
decking the halls, all in the best possible taste.
Marguerite Kaye starts us off with A Governess For
Christmas which introduces a former soldier, now out of
society, seeking a wife to restore his respectability.
Drummond MacIntosh is acting under orders from the Iron
Duke, as the Duke of Wellington is known, but seems
determined to disobey one more time by flirting with a mere
governess. Joanna Forsythe, who was falsely accused of
theft by an employer, falls fast in love with Drummond, but
marrying her would not mend his reputation.
Bronwyn Scott continues the account with her saucy miss who
is Dancing With The Duke's Heir. Vale Penrith has only
recently become next in line to a dukedom after a few
family deaths, and he is suddenly a far more eligible
bachelor than he was. Lady Viola Hawthorne has no need of
money and doesn't wish to marry, so she decides to behave
as disgracefully as possible, and by flirting with Vale she
can't damage his prospects. While technically the gentle
Duchess, her hostess, is the chaperone, the young people
find plenty of opportunities to slip off together for
kissing and even passion. What would her mama have to say
if she knew!
These good-hearted adult Regency romances make the most of
the setting. I once more admire Marguerite Kaye
particularly for developing characters on the margins of
high society and whose past actions constrain their
freedoms. The contrast is made stronger by Bronwyn Scott's
merrier couple, full of the liberties of wealth and
position. Which ever suits your mood, SCANDAL AT THE
CHRISTMAS BALL is a wonderful Christmas stocking read, well
researched and full of life.
One Christmas house party leads to two Regency love
A Governess for Christmas
by Marguerite Kaye
At the glittering Brockmore house party, former army major
Drummond MacIntosh meets governess in disgrace Joanna
Forsythe, who’s desperate to clear her name. Both are eager
to put their pasts behind them, but their scandalous affair
will make for a very different future…
Dancing with the Duke’s
Heir by Bronwyn Scott
As heir to a dukedom, Vale Penrith does not want a wife,
certainly not one like Lady Viola Hawthorne. So why does
London’s Shocking Beauty tempt him beyond reason? Dare he
try and tame her, or is a Christmas seduction the best way
to bring her to surrender?
Thursday, 24th December 1818, Christmas Eve
Christmas. Again. The fourth without his father, without
his brother. Vale Penrith drew a deep breath and stepped
down from the warm carriage into the bracing cold of
winter, the soles of his boots crunching on the crisp, thin
layer of newly falling snow. Lumi, the Sami people of
Lapland, his latest anthropological study, would call it.
Perhaps later it would turn to viti, powdery snow, or if
they were less lucky, iljanne—snow that was only a thin
layer atop ice. Vale cast a glance towards the grey clouds,
sending a prayer skywards. He just had to get through the
next twelve days. At least, he wasn’t doing it alone.
Vale reached into the carriage, offering a hand to his
mother. Margot Penrith descended, a fragile, beautiful snow
queen, delicate and elegant, swathed in expensive furs. The
look in her pale blue eyes mirrored the thoughts of his
mind: they weren’t supposed to be here. Not like this, a
broken family of two mourning the loss of their other
halves: a beloved husband, an adored brother; a widow and
an unlooked-for heir. He’d never thought to be at Brockmore
as the heir to his uncle’s legacy, a legacy he felt ill
suited to assume. He was a politician by conscience when
the occasion demanded it, an anthropologist by choice. He
was not a duke.
He took his mother’s arm and together they climbed the
entry stairs to the imposing double doors already swagged
with greenery. An invitation to some, Vale supposed. A note
of caution to others like himself. Either way the message
of the greenery was the same: Christmas began the moment
one passed beyond these doors. Guests could expect the Duke
and Duchess of Brockmore to engage the holiday fully. His
aunt and uncle did nothing by halves.
Inside, the hall was warm. The sound of happy voices
drifted from the drawing room along with welcoming scents
of spiced tea and fresh baked cakes. The butler had barely
taken their coats and furs when Uncle Marcus appeared,
silver hair thick, clothes immaculate, his carriage hale
and perfect as he strode forward, his arms held out wide, a
broad smile on his face, his voice booming in welcome. He
took Vale’s mother in a full embrace. ‘Margot, my dear
sister-in-law! You’re here and just in time. We’ll start
the greening in an hour or so. Alicia will be so glad you
made it. One never knows with the roads this time of year.’
He turned to Vale, studying him for a moment, the keen blue
Brockmore eyes sweeping him from top to bottom in approval.
‘My boy, it is good to see you,’ he said simply before
wrapping him in his arms. Vale hugged him back. For just a
minute, he wasn’t the heir, but simply a beloved nephew and
this man was not the mighty Brockmore, powerful duke, but
his uncle, his father’s older brother, a living link to the
man he’d lost. And Vale savoured it.
Aunt Alicia materialised beside him, tall and regal in a
fashionable gown of dark blue, just as Vale remembered her.
She looped her arm through his mother’s, taking the
delicate Margot under her hostess’s wing and ushering her
into the heart of the party in Brockmore’s famed blue
receiving room, already drawing her in with chatter and
news of the guests. Uncle Marcus clapped a firm hand on his
shoulder. ‘Come, there’s some people I want you to meet.’
Brockmore toured him about the room. He met the golden,
blue-eyed Aubrey Kenelm, heir to the Marquess of Durham,
the poised brunette, Lady Anne Lowell, daughter of the Earl
of Blackton, whom the Duke introduced with a certain
sparkle in his eye. That sparkle sent a frisson of caution
through Vale. His uncle was notorious for his matchmaking
at these parties. He had no wish to be his uncle’s next
project. Vale nodded politely to each woman, careful not to
be too polite to Lady Anne, while smiling warmly at her
subdued companion, Marianne Pletcher, who by nature of her
situation posed no danger to him as a potential match.
These were the sorts of people he expected to meet. They
were the sorts who ran in his uncle’s circles. Well-bred,
well-moneyed people with marital hopes. But, he noted,
there was another set of guests that populated the drawing
room—in fact, made up the majority of the guests in
attendance. There was Miss Rose Burnham, a decidedly pretty
girl of good family whose father had fallen on hard times,
leaving her with nothing than her looks as a dowry; Matthew
Eaton, son of the local baron, who never quite made it up
to London but was charming and handsome despite the lack of
any other true prospects to offer. With the exception of
Kenelm and Lady Anne, these were not the typical guests one
usually encountered at Brockmore. Finally, his uncle
brought him to a man of later middle years sitting by
himself in the corner.
The man rose to greet them, his uncle putting a hand on the
man’s shoulder in affection. ‘Silas Arthur, Lord Truesdale,
this is my nephew, Vale Penrith.’
Vale watched the man’s tired eyes register with
recognition. ‘Ah, Penrith. The heir.’ Vale was coming to
hate the title, a constant symbol of all that had
transpired in order for that label to come to him.
They made small talk briefly before his uncle excused them,
his voice quiet at his ear as they moved away. ‘Silas lost
his wife two years ago.’ Uncle Marcus squeezed his
shoulder, drawing Vale’s gaze. ‘You are not the only here
who mourns.’ There was a fleeting sadness in his uncle’s
gaze, a reminder that his uncle had lost a brother the same
way he’d lost R.J. when his father had died. And yet, one
would never know except in these unguarded moments. He
envied his uncle that ability to go on. He had not mastered
that quality yet. Perhaps he didn’t want to. Perhaps he
wanted the clock to stop on the twenty-first of April 1814,
since then both his father and R.J. would still be alive.
His uncle steered him towards the small cluster of
gentlemen at the fireplace, the momentary sadness gone from
his gaze. ‘You’ll want to get to know the other young men,’
he instructed, ‘They’re all very nice. I think you will
enjoy Kenelm and Eaton, especially. Others will be joining
us before long.’ He winked and gave him a final clap on the
back. ‘Be happy, Vale.’ His eyes sparked with mischief.
‘Don’t think I don’t know you’d prefer to stay hidden away
in London in your library with your anthropology, trying to
ignore the world. Life goes on whether you want it to or
not. You might as well enjoy it. Consider it my Christmas
gift to you.’
Not just to him, Vale thought as Kenelm moved over to make
room for him in their circle at the fireplace. It explained
the mix of guests; the lonely widower in the corner, the
pretty, desperate debutante, the country-bound baron’s son
who for all his potential would never escape the country
without a boost from a high-placed mentor. The list went
on. His uncle’s gift to them was a chance: a chance to
marry well if you were Rose Burnham, a chance to rebuild
your life if you were Lord Truesdale; a chance to rise
beyond the limits of the countryside on the merits of your
own wit if you were Matthew Eaton. A chance to be happy and
alive, if you were Vale Penrith and you’d been dead inside
already for nearly four years.
At the entrance to the drawing room, his uncle clapped his
hands, demanding attention. ‘Everyone! A moment, please!’
He waited for the room to silence. Aunt Alicia took her
place next to her husband, smiling her own greeting. ‘We
want to welcome you to Brockmore for the holidays. We have
festivities planned from skating parties to a gingerbread
fair, and masquerade ball for Twelfth Night. It will be a
Christmastide to remember!’ Swift murmurs of excitement
undulated around the room. Brockmore called for silence
once more. ‘The footmen have returned with the boughs,
freshly cut from Brockmore pine. Let the greening commence!
Let Christmas begin!’
Applause and cheers went up, filling the drawing room.
Beside him, Aubrey Kenelm was good naturedly stripping out
of his coat, ready to work. ‘The ladies will need us for
the heavy lifting.’ He grinned and nudged Matthew Eaton
with his elbow as if they were the best of friends even
though they’d only met an hour ago. He grabbed Vale’s arm
with his other hand. ‘Come on. I’ll take the doorways, you
and Matthew take the staircase.’ Just like that, Vale found
himself in charge of draping the banister with no chance to
slink off to his room to unpack his books. He had a report
to write for the board of the British Museum concerning
Lapland and the mysteries of the north. His uncle was
right. He’d rather be tucked away in his library where no
one could bother him instead of being in the thick of the
festivities. But it was too late to turn back now. The
museum report would have to wait.
Just another half an inch and she’d have it. She couldn’t
turn back now, not when she was nearly there. Lady Viola
Hawthorne stretched on the tips of her toes atop a ladder
in Brockmore’s hall, a mistletoe ball hanging from her
fingers as she reached for the fire-polished crystal drop
hanging from the chandelier’s centre. Almost…there…
The ladder swayed precariously as she adjusted her
position. A good sixteen feet below her a crowd of young
people greening the hall began to gather around the base of
the ladder, intrigued by her antics. On her periphery, she
caught sight of a tall figure moving rapidly down the
stairs. She felt firmer hands on the ladder a moment later,
followed by an even firmer admonition. ‘Come down at once!
Do you want to break your neck?’ She didn’t dare look to
see who it was below her or she’d lose her nerve. Did the
Scold really think she hadn’t already come to the same
conclusion? She’d simply chosen to ignore the danger.
Playing it cautious didn’t fit her plans. Cautious girls
weren’t expelled from house parties.
Lady Viola laughed, loud and brave. ‘Never!’ The reproach
spurred her on, urging her up on to one toe like a
ballerina, her gown drawn tight against her breasts as she
stretched upwards, her hem lifting to reveal her ankles and
quite a bit more. One could indeed be enormously scandalous
atop a ladder, which was precisely what she intended,
precisely why she’d worn silk stockings, red garters and
nothing more beneath her gown. But at the moment, she cared
less what the local lads might sneak a peek at and more
about the challenge at hand. She was fully extended. There
wasn’t a fraction of an inch left to be had. Unless…
She couldn’t be closer to the chandelier, but the
chandelier could be closer to her. Viola’s fingertips could
just reach the nearest arm, just enough to give it a push.
She set the great chandelier to swaying, a little at first
and then more when it gained momentum, but not too much. It
was delicate work. She didn’t want the chandelier to mow
her down like a wrecking ball. Now, all she had to do was
time the in-swing, and… Voila!
‘Got it!’ she exclaimed, hooking the mistletoe on to the
dangling crystal drop as the chandelier made its third
The guests beneath her broke into applause and cheers, all
except one—her disapproving ladder holder. Never mind him.
She had no time for spoilsports. She climbed halfway down,
stopping to sweep her adoring audience a gallant bow,
before launching herself. ‘Catch me!’
She let go of the ladder and fell. There was a collective
gasp, a moment’s chaos, others rushing forward to steady
the ladder and then she was in his arms: strong arms, angry
arms. He was not nearly as amused by her finale as everyone
else. His blue eyes were thunderous when he set her down.
‘You little fool! Have you no care? Do you value yourself
so cheaply as to throw your life away over a tawdry trick?
Or the lives of your fellow guests? You put them at risk as
well. What do you suppose happens to them if the ladder
falls, or the chandelier crashes without warning?’ He did
not bother to lower his voice and his tone froze the levity
‘Who the hell are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?’
She looked him up and down, from steely blue eyes to long
legs, her hands on hips in outrage. How dare he publicly
reprimand her as if she were a naughty child?. Worse than
that, how dare he steal her attention?.
‘I’m Vale Penrith, Brockmore’s nephew. This is my home as
much as it is my uncle’s. I will not see it used as a
staging grounds for imprudent behaviour.’
The heir. Oh, well done. This was a record even for her.
She’d been here less than two hours and she’d managed to
give Brockmore’s heir a peek up her skirts. This would not
do. She knew a moment of uncharacteristic panic. Her
parents, when they arrived, would be furious if they found
out. True, she wanted them furious enough to send her home,
away from the dangers of matchmaking, but not too furious—
if they thought they could use a scandal to compromise
someone as enticing as Brockmore’s heir to the altar, her
plans would have backfired in the extreme. The altar was
what she was trying to avoid.
Diversion! She needed something to top the ladder escapade,
something everyone would talk about instead. She flashed a
challenge at tall, imposing Penrith with his angry eyes and
strong arms before turning to the others. ‘We’re standing
under a mistletoe ball and you all know what that means!’
Viola pulled the nearest young man to her, Matthew Eaton,
and kissed him hard on the mouth, a glorious, open-mouthed
kiss that lingered long enough for everyone to take note.
This was no chaste peck on the cheek, or a polite, dry buss
on the lips.
Viola stepped back and raised her arms in pronouncement.
‘The first kiss of Christmas!’ The guests whooped with
delight. Just like that, she had the crowd back. She tossed
Penrith a victorious grin over her shoulder, but he was
already gone, back up the stairs to fasten the last of the
bows on the garland at maddeningly even, precise intervals,
thanks, no doubt, to the measuring stick he probably
carried in his…head.