An Affair Before Christmas
One spectacular Christmas, Lady Perdita Selby, known to her friends and family as Poppy, met the man she thought she would love forever. The devilishly attractive Duke of Fletcher was the perfect match for the innocent, breathtakingly beautiful young Englishwoman, and theirs was the most romantic wedding she had ever seen. Four years later, Poppy and the Duke have become the toast of the ton… but behind closed doors it seems the spark of their love affair has burnt out.
Unwilling to lose the woman he still lusts after, the duke is determined to win back his beguiling brides delectable affections . . . and surpass the heady days of first love with a truly sinful seduction.
“She makes you believe in love and miracles. …It’s overwhelming, joyful, painful — and James’ novel is a masterpiece.”
~ Romantic Times BOOKClub (4 1/2 Stars)
Number 15 on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Named a favorite holiday read by All About Romance.
Eloisa made up these gorgeous collectible cards for readers to celebrate the Desperate Duchesses, Original Six series. With Roberta and Poppy on one side and Harriet, Isidore, Jemma, and Eleanor on the other, this 5x7 can be yours. And this isn't the only gorgeous card to be had!
Warning! In describing relations between characters, I may wreck a book for you by making it clear who someone marries, or the outcome of a book. Please do not read about The Inside Take if you're wary of knowing who is paired with whom!
When I wrote the prologue to An Affair Before Christmas, I was thinking of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I admit it: wrong time period, wrong country... but oh, the lush, vivid sense of Christmas delight!
In collaboration with a very talented illustrator, Eloisa created paper dolls complete with extravagant hairpieces and two Georgian fashion dresses to go along with her Desperate Duchesses, the Original Six heroines. With the template drawn only in outline so readers could DIY, Eloisa then issued a challenge: make one and send it in, and she'd have a drawing to pick the ones that fit the heroines the best.
To see all the winning dolls and more, as well as to download the template, click over to Eloisa's Design-A-Duchess Paper Doll feature.
This is the dress Eloisa selected for Poppy. Click through to see it bigger in all its wonderful detail.
Deb noticed that there’s an “a” missing on page 110 when the Duke of Beaumont looks at Villiers’s manservant (for “a” moment) and on a similar note, on page 348 Fletcher needs to take his wife’s face in his hands, not just in “his,” which implies some sort of weird gymnastic feat.
“…the resplendent combination of her exquisitely nuanced characters and lushly sensual romance is sublime.”
“Entertaining and exciting throughout…”
~ Publishers Weekly
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Saint Germain des Près
Ice hung from window sills with a glitter that rivaled glass, and new snow turned the sooty streets to rivers of milk. Looking at the city from the bell tower of Saint Germain, the Duke of Fletcher could see candles flaring in store windows, and though he couldn't smell roasting goose, holly leaves and gleaming berries over doors signaled that all of Paris had turned its mind toward a delicious banquet of gingerbread and spice, of rich wine and sugared cakes. An ancient joy shone in passerby's eyes and spilled from children's laughter. Magic sang in the wild peals of church bells that kept breaking out first in one church and then another, in the way each sprig of mistletoe sheltered sweet kisses. It was Christmas… It was Christmas in Paris, and if there was ever a city made for love, and a season made to enjoy it in, the two of them together were as intoxicating as the strongest red wine.
In fact, philosophers have argued for years whether it is possible to be in Paris and not fall in love…if not with a ravishing woman, then with the bells, with the bagettes, with the gleam of the illicit that touches every heart, even those of proper English noblemen. The duke would have answered that question without hesitation. He had thrown away his heart after one glance at Notre Dame, had succumbed to the siren call of delicious food after one bite of French bread, and had finally – absolutely – irrevocably – fallen in love with a young and ravishingly beautiful member of the opposite sex.
From where Fletch stood in the bell tower, Ponte Neuf leapt the Seine in a voluptuous curve, and all Paris shimmered below him, a forest of spires and roofs, dusted with snow. Every gargoyle sported a long silver nose. Notre Dame floated queen-like above the other more narrow and anxious spires that seemed to beg for God’s attention. The Cathedral ignored such slender anxieties, counting herself more beautiful, more devoted, more luxurious than the others. Christmas, she seemed to say, is mine.
“It’s almost miraculous, how we feel about each other.”
Fletch blinked and looked down at his bride-to-be, Lady Perdita Selby. For a moment Notre Dame, Poppy and Christmas were confusingly mixed in his mind: as if a Cathedral were more erotic than a woman; as if a woman were more sacred than the holiday.
She smiled up at him, her face framed by soft curls, the color of white gold streaked with sunlight, her mouth as sweet and ripe as any French plum. “You don’t think it’s too good to be true, Fletch? You don’t, do you?”
“Of course not!” Fletch said promptly. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the country, Poppy. The only miracle is that you fell in love with me.”
“That’s no miracle,” Poppy said, putting a slender finger squarely on the dimple in the middle of his chin. “The moment I saw you, I knew that you were everything I wanted in a husband.”
“And that is?” He put his arms around her, regardless of who might be watching. It was Paris, after all, and while there were plenty of English gentlefolk here, standards weren’t as rigid as they were back in London.
“Well, you are a duke,” she said teasingly.
“You just love me for my title?” He bent his head to kiss her on the cheek. Her skin was inexpressibly creamy and soft. It drove him into an ecstasy of lust…a French-inflected lust, the kind that wanted to kiss a woman from the very tip of her toes to the top of her ears, that wanted to lick and snuffle and eat her, as if she were more delicious than a truffle (which she would be).
It was not the kind of lust he ever felt before he came to France. In England, men looked at women as vessels in which to plunge and buck. But Fletch could feel himself changing and growing, the power of Paris and love. He wanted to worship Poppy’s body, taste the sweet salt of her sweat, kiss away her tears of joy after he brought her to the ultimate happiness.
“Exactly,” Poppy said, laughing. “Your title is all important. I didn’t even notice how handsome you are, or the way you treat ladies with so much respect, or the fact that you dance so beautifully, or – or this dimple.”
“Dimple?” Fletch was bent on kissing her again, and he meant to distract her into talking as long as he could so she would relax into the intimacy of it. Little Poppy was the sweetest girl in the world, but she was devilishly hard to kiss. Every time he managed to get her alone, there was always some reason why he couldn’t hold her, why he couldn’t kiss her. At this rate, they would have to wait until their wedding night to indulge in any and all of the wanton things that paraded through his mind twenty-four hours a day.
“In your chin,” she said, nodding her head. “The dimple was what really made up my mind.”
He pulled back, a little disgruntled. “I hate this dimple. In fact, I may well grow a beard to cover it up.”
“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” she sighed, caressing his chin. “It’s so adorable. You can tell just from looking at it what kind of man you are.”
“And what kind of man is that?” he asked, bending his head again and never guessing how much her answer would resound in his mind in years to come.
“Honorable, and true, and – and everything a woman could possibly want in a husband. All the ladies agree; you should hear the Countess of Montsurry. She says you're delicious."
Fletch thought that Poppy might have missed the point of the countess's admiration. “They all say that?” He was close enough to her mouth that he made a sudden dive at it. For a second he thought she was yielding; those sweet rosy lips of hers that kept him up half the night in a fever of lust softened under his assault. But when he added a little tongue to the mix—
“Eeek! What are you doing!”
“Kissing you,” he said, dropping his arms from around her shoulders because she was whacking him with her parasol and it seemed the right thing to do.
“That is disgusting,” she said, glaring at him. “Dis-gusting! You don’t think that duchesses go around doing that sort of thing, do you?”
“Kissing?” he asked helplessly.
“Kissing like that. You put your – your saliva in my mouth!” She looked truly horrified. “How could you think that I would allow something like that? I’m disgusted!”
“But Poppy, that’s what kissing is like,” he protested, feeling a chill wisp of alarm down his backbone. “Haven't you seen people kissing under the mistletoe? You can ask anyone.”
“How could I ask anyone,” she said in a heated whisper. “To ask anyone would be to allow them to know of your perversion – and I would never do that. You are going to be my husband, after all!” A strange mixture of adoration and reprobation crossed her eyes.
“I know!” he exclaimed in relief. “Ask the Duchess of Beaumont. She knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Poppy frowned. “My mother says that the duchess is the most unprincipled Englishwoman in Paris. It's true that I am very fond of Jemma, but I'm not sure that –"
“Your mother's disapproval of the duchess,” Fletch said, “makes her the very person to ask about a little question like this.”
“But Jemma is not kissing anyone,” Poppy objected. “Why, Mother says that the duke barely paid her a visit in the last few years. He only comes over once a year or something like that.” She gazed up at him, her blue eyes impossibly innocent. “How could I ask her about kissing you? It would make her feel sad that her own marriage is so terribly empty, when ours will be so lovely.” She put a hand on his cheek, and suddenly none of it mattered.
“I don’t care if you ask or not,” he said, pulling her into his arms again. At least she let him hold her. That would have to do until they wed. “We can work it all out on our wedding night.” He was determined to bring his beloved Poppy the same pleasure that he would find in her body. He’d read all about it in a French book, stumbling along through the strange words. And he was astute enough to realize that none of the semi-professional encounters with women he’d had before coming to Paris had had anything to do with his partner’s pleasure. In fact, thinking of their practiced moans made him shudder.
If Paris had taught him anything, it was this: he could sleep with Cleopatra herself, and if she wasn’t enjoying the act, he didn’t want anything to do with it. When a Parisian woman smiled, her smile was an invitation that had everything to do with her pleasure, and little to do with his. When a Parisian woman smiled at him, Fletch remembered Cécile, who told him that his lips were as beautiful as cherries, or Élise, who uttered little screams when she saw him unclothed. Of course, Élise and Cécile belonged to his first month in Paris, before he fell in love. Now his heart was full of Poppy…and his loins would love to follow his heart.
But Poppy, leaning against his broad shoulder, frowned to herself. What exactly did Fletch mean by saying that they would work it out? That sounded as if this type of kissing was something he had his heart set upon.
Lady Poppy was a practical little soul, at the heart. She could see that her husband’s easy-going manners and sweet eyes masked a sturdy determination to get his own way. One only had to look at his wind-swept locks to see that. Never a touch of powder! Her mother clucked, but Fletch refused…and Poppy had to admit that he looked well with raven locks tumbling around his neck.
“I’ll ask Jemma,” she promised. He was kissing her ear, and she liked that. In fact, she enjoyed many of the things Fletch did, like putting his arms around her (as long as he didn’t disturb her hair), and kissing her ear and her cheek and her chin, and even her lips, except when he became a trifle too forceful in that respect.
Her mother had instructed her very firmly on that front. “You must allow him to brush your lips with his,” she had said. “After all, he is a duke. You will be a duchess. In order to catch a duke, one must allow certain indignities.”
At the time, Poppy had laughed at the idea that Fletch’s lips on hers could be seen as an indignity. Joy had flooded her soul that she was so lucky. She was in love with a duke, and that made her mother happy. A duke (darling Fletch) was in love with her…and that made her happy. In fact, the world was all sunshine and light, if she could just work out this kissing business.
“Let me show you how nice it is,” Fletch said coaxingly. When his voice deepened like that, Poppy wanted to do anything he wished, though of course she would never have told him so. One mustn’t let men know how much power they have, her mother often said. And she was right, of course.
But she obediently bent her head up towards his, and he brushed his lips across hers. “That’s nice,” she said encouragingly. “Why, I—“
The next moment he pulled her so sharply into his arms that she felt her stays poke directly into her breasts; her brooch unhooked and fell to the stone floor. “Fletch!” she cried. He took advantage of that, and stuck his tongue directly into her mouth. Directly! And – and swept it about, as if she were some sort of cupboard he were cleaning.
“Awk, urg, No!” she shrieked, shoving him away. For a small woman, Poppy had a lot of strength.
Not even his sad eyes could make her change her mind about this. “I love you, Fletch, you know that.” She narrowed her eyes and waited.
“You know how much I love you,” he said, giving her a coaxing little smile.
She didn’t smile back. “You simply have to learn that there are things that – that an English lady doesn’t do.”
“What’you mean?” He looked a bit confused, and Poppy had a flash of pride. For once, she knew something he didn’t!
“Mama says that ladies have different rules for intimacy than – then, say, our lavandière does,” she explained to him, carefully keeping even the slightest bit of condescension out of her voice.
“They don’t kiss? Of course ladies kiss. And washer women too, no matter whether they're French or English!”
“They may kiss,” she said, “but there are different kinds of intimacies practiced by the different classes, of course. Just as we wear different clothing, and eat different foods. And different nations too. We are fundamentally different. My mother says that English gentlewomen have very little in common with the French."
He stared down at her and Poppy nearly blinked. Could that look be, just a little, well, disappointed? She hated disappointing people. “Do you understand?” she asked, a little catch of anxiety in her voice.
“I suppose,” he said, rather slowly.
"You can see it yourself, Fletch, if you compare our monarchy to that of the French. The English court is virtuous, whereas the French court is riddled with scandal. My mother says –"
"Poppy, you haven't lived in England since you were thirteen years old. Believe me, the English court is as rife with scandal as is the French. The distance of the channel just makes it look cleaner. Their rumors don't make it across the water."
Poppy thought about that. "So you mean that last week, when there was all that fuss about Lady Serrard flirting with L'Anou…"
"They never heard about it in England, obviously, but it was all we talked off for days. Yet it came to nothing. We never hear English tittle-tattle, any more than they will hear of Lady Serrard's supposed indiscretion."
"That's a fair point," Poppy conceded.
He grinned down at her and her breath caught in her throat. She couldn't help thinking that Fletch was far too beautiful for her.
The eyes of all the French ladies followed him, even those of the Countess of Montsurry. He often didn't appear to notice, but Poppy did. Looking up at him now, she felt as if she could turn to stone, admiring his beautiful eyes, (black in the center with a luminous gray rim), his lean body, the way he moved so gracefully, even when just walking. A lady had once sighed and said that to watch the Duke of Fletcher make his bow was to see the male body at its utter peak of grace. How on earth could such a nonpareil have fallen in love with her, Poppy, short for Perdita and just short in general?
She wasn't the only one with that question in mind. French ladies looked at her and tittered behind their fans. They drifted past, congratulating her on her clevernessor called her a mignonne, which was next thing to calling her an infant.
Last night Fletch wore a mantle of black Epingle velvet embroidered with black jet beads to a ball given by the Duchess of Orleans. With his hair in a simple queue at his neck, he combined a rakish care-for-nothing air with the clothes of an élégante. French ladies dropped their fans to smile at him, with that special pout they kept for delicious men. She had watched him smile in return, and then bow before Countess Mercy d'Argentau, dancing with her for the second time.
"Sit straight!" her mother had barked at her. "You are going to be his duchess, not that rag-tale piece of nobility. Don’t peer like a lovesick nursling; you lower yourself by noticing her attentions to him."
"But Mama," Poppy had said, pushed into honesty by the twist in her gut, "the countess is so much more beautiful than I. And her gown is so much more revealing."
"You are attired perfectly for a young girl making her debut," her mother had said, looking her over. "And if your face and figure are not the height of regularity and beauty, no one could say that I spared the least expense." That was true. Her mother favored two ruffles where one might do, and often decided on five instead. Poppy's skirts were festooned with strings of seed pearls, and her bodices were trimmed with ermine.
But Poppy thought (secretly) that something simple might suit her better. Her frame was so small that side panniers, a long train, and a markedly large hairstyle, no matter how fashionable, made her feel like a decorated child.
Fletch tipped a finger under her chin. "I didn't mean to send you off into a daze, Poppy. I picked up your brooch, but I'm afraid the pin is bent. I'll have it fixed for you."
It was foolish to worry. Fletch was here – and he was hers. She smiled at him. "Thank you."
Fletch turned the brooch over in his hand. "What an odd cameo."
"It's the only cameo of a bird I've ever seen. The Wedgwood company made it in honor of Queen Elizabeth."
"And just how is a flying crane with a crown on its head is supposed to honor Elizabeth?"
"Foolish, isn't it? But look here—" she pointed it out to him – "the craftsman was marvelous. You can see each feather in the wingspan."
"But the crown makes it look as if the bird has horns," he objected.
"I know. That's a small problem in the execution, though I still like it." She tucked her hand under his arm. “Shall we return? It's quite chilly, and I wouldn’t want Mama to become concerned about me.” And then, because he still looked a little distant in a way that she didn’t like, she added: “I’ll ask Jemma exactly what ladies do and don’t when it comes to kissing, Fletch. I promise.”
A few minutes later they walked out the door of the abbey. Paris lay on either side of them, dreaming in the chilly morning air until suddenly the air came alive again with a wild ringing of bells, liquid notes falling from the tower above them, echoing off snowy brick walls and steep cathedral spires.
"It's Christmas," Poppy said, feeling a sudden rush of joy. "It's my favorite day of the year. I adore Christmas."
"I adore you," Fletch said, stopping. "Do you see what I see, Poppy?"
"What?" she breathed, looking up at him and not wherever he was pointing.
"Mistletoe," he said, putting his arms around her. "Mistletoe hanging in thin air."
Poppy closed her eyes and tipped up her face. It was just the right sort of kiss: sweet, short and loving. Then they began to walk back, Poppy picking her way over cobblestones lined in a thin gleaming sheet of ice.
A young woman hurried toward them, head down, a long loaf of bread tucked under her arm. Fletch felt as if he could smell the warm, fresh bread, and then before he knew it, he was imagining the luxurious curve of her breast pressed against the warm crust. He would –
He wrenched his thoughts away. When he and Poppy were married, he would have early morning bread delivered to their chambers, and he would break it apart and eat it from her body, as though she were a platter for the gods.
“You have such a curious smile on your face,” Poppy said. “What are you thinking about?”
“You. Only you.”
Poppy smiled to herself, and an old Parisian who passed reflected that he, one of the world’s connoisseurs of beauty, had never seen a lady quite so exquisite. In her face and figure were years of English and French ancestry, and having been raised mainly in France, every aspect of her figure and costume were à la mode. But it was her eyes, and the way she looked only at the tall Englishman striding beside her that made her shine with that particular joy that makes even the plainest person beautiful.
“Ah,” he sighed. “L’amour!”
End of Excerpt
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An Affair Before Christmas is Book 2 in the Desperate Duchesses, the Original Six series.
The full series reading order is as follows: