As her cousin’s carriage rounded another hairpin turn up the snow-covered mountain, Miss Cynthia Louise Finch did her best to keep the playing cards and gambling chips from sliding off the squab in front of them.
Gertie flashed out an arm to block her puppy from tumbling off of the seat beside her. Her other hand gripped two playing cards tight enough to dent the stiff paper.
“Are two Jacks good enough?” she asked in a tiny, hesitant voice.
They had been playing vingt-et-un for the entire hour’s ride north from Houville. So far, Gertie was afraid of winning, losing, and wagering.
“Two Jacks are wonderful,” Cynthia Louise assured her cousin for the third time since she’d dealt the cards. “Remember, you’re not supposed to let me know that you have two Jacks. I can see them from here, and even if I couldn’t, you’ve dented the bottoms in such a way that I’ll be able to recognize those cards as Jacks in all future deals.”
Gertie lay the Jacks face-up on her primrose velvet pelisse and attempted to smooth the crinkles from the cards.
“Face-down,” Cynthia whispered.
Gertie flipped the cards over. “You already knew I had two Jacks.”
“I didn’t know it was the Jack of Diamonds and Jack of Clubs,” Cynthia pointed out.
Gertie looked horrified. “You didn’t say suit mattered!”
“It doesn’t matter in vingt-et-un,” Cynthia tried to explain. “But if we were playing whist or—”
The terrified look in Gertie’s eyes indicated she’d throw herself from the moving carriage before attempting something as complex and ruinous as whist.
“Try to remember,” Cynthia said gently. “It’s a good habit never to show your cards.”
“It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless.” Gertie threw her wrinkled cards atop the deck and dropped her last remaining buttons onto the wagering pile in defeat. “How can Father expect me to win a duke if I can’t even manage vingt-et-un?”
“You’re a sweet, beautiful, well-bred young lady,” Cynthia answered. “And if for some reason that isn’t enough, you also have me. I am the wild card who will help you win Nottingvale’s favor.”
Gertie’s delicate face lost some of its pallor, and she gave a tremulous smile. “You can do anything. That’s why Father sent you with me.”
This was partly true.
Cynthia liked to believe she could do almost anything—which was what made her a terrible choice in chaperone. She was more likely to play skittles at the Frost Fair as to stay home embroidering handkerchiefs.
According to anyone who had ever read a scandal column, Cynthia’s irrepressible hoydenish ways were the reason she was destined to remain a spinster for the rest of her days.
To her uncle the earl, Cynthia’s spinsterness was what recommended her most as chaperone. At the ungodly advanced age of thirty, she wouldn’t be attracting the Duke of Nottingvale’s romantic attentions.
Because she was the sole unmarried adult female in the extended family, Cynthia was also the only woman with no other responsibilities during the festive season.
As a native of the closest village to Cressmouth, Cynthia had attended the Duke of Nottingvale’s annual Christmastide party for years.
This year, His Grace intended to select a bride from his Yuletide guests.
Cynthia’s role was to make certain that bride was Gertie.
“But, Cynthia Louise…” Gertie whispered. “What if he hates me?”
“He won’t hate you. No one hates you.” Cynthia tucked the cards back into their box. “No one knows you, darling. You don’t talk to anyone. You’re going to have to speak to Nottingvale on occasion so that he notices you’re there.”
Gertie looked as though Cynthia had just suggested performing a naked trapeze act at the circus.
“I can’t talk to him. I can’t talk to anyone. I never know what to say.” Gertie pulled Max onto her lap and gripped him tight. “Can’t you do the talking for me? You always know what to do.”
“I rarely know what to do,” Cynthia corrected. “I just pick something and do it.”
“Yes.” Gertie’s eyes shone as if Cynthia had just confessed to dark magic. “You weren’t the least bit shy when you begged cousin Olaf to show you how to use his skis.”
Cynthia scooped the gambling buttons back into their bag. “I’m not certain that skis—”
“You weren’t timid at all when those fops challenged you to a bout of fencing,” Gertie continued.
“You definitely shouldn’t copy that,” Cynthia said firmly. “Fops can be dangerous.”
“And I’ve never seen anything so brave as the time you climbed up the tallest tree in Hyde Park to rescue a little girl’s kite,” Gertie finished dreamily. “I can’t even climb a small tree.”
“You’re not supposed to climb trees,” Cynthia reminded her cousin. “The duke’s primary requirement is a proper young lady, and you’re the properest young lady I know. That’s your trump card.”
Gertie frowned. “What’s a trump card again?”
“Your advantage,” Cynthia explained. “The thing that makes you better than all of the other choices.”
“But I’m not better.” Gertie’s face was pale. “All of the young ladies will be well-mannered debutantes from good families, just like me. And they won’t turn into a potato with all eyes and no mouth if the duke happens to glance in their direction.”
“You’ll be the prettiest potato the duke has ever seen,” Cynthia assured her. “If you can’t think of anything to say, nod and look interested. That will get you through more conversations than you might expect. It’s how Barbara landed her husband.”
Gertie brightened. “Barbara is very happy. You did a splendid job with both of my sisters.”
Cynthia had become the de facto companion for her younger, prettier cousins after her sixth and final Season passed without a peep of interest from anyone. There hadn’t even been a bad proposal to turn down.
She was glad of it. Who needed a husband?
With a high-in-the-instep duke like Nottingvale glowering down his patrician nose at her, there would be no trees or skis or skittles.
Cynthia was much happier as a spinster. Her life had become exponentially easier the moment she decided to abandon high society’s stifling rules in favor of having none at all. Without having to worry about attracting potential suitors, she was free to live as she pleased.
She was never going back.
“Max, no!” Gertie scolded. “You’ll muss my traveling dress!”
See? Cynthia didn’t give two figs about wrinkled muslin. Being unmarriageable was so much better than trying to be presentable all of the time.
“I’ll take him.”
The puppy was already leaping from Gertie’s bodice to Cynthia’s lap before she finished the sentence.
“He’s impossible,” Gertie said fondly. “You’re certain the duke won’t mind that we’ve brought him?”
“If he does, we’ll say Max is my dog.” Scrunching up her face, Cynthia tried not to laugh as the small, wiggly brown puppy licked her face exuberantly.
See? Canine saliva glistening on one’s cheeks was no problem at all when one was an unmarriageable spinster.
“What if the duke does pick me?” Gertie said in horror. “Will I have to give up Max?”
“Of course not.” Cynthia rubbed between his ears. “I’ll ‘give’ Max back to you as an early wedding present. It would be rude of the duke not to accept a family member’s wedding present, and the Duke of Nottingvale is never rude. He’s always perfectly proper. It’s in his blood.”
“He frightens me,” Gertie whispered. “He’s so big.”
“Well, he is tall,” Cynthia admitted. “And those wide shoulders are difficult to miss. But try to concentrate on the other details. He has very long eyelashes for a duke. They’re the same deep brown as his eyes. The left side of his mouth turns up a little more than the right when he smiles. That’s a flaw, isn’t it? One can barely tear one’s gaze away. As for all of those trim muscles from boxing and swimming…”
What was she supposed to be talking about?
Cynthia busied herself balancing Max upside-down on her lap in order to rub his soft belly and thereby avoid meeting her cousin’s eyes.
Cynthia did not fancy the Duke of Nottingvale.
She did not.
Gertie depended on Cynthia—the entire family depended upon her—and she was going to deliver. Nottingvale would be smitten with Gertie at first sight. This would be the easiest matchmaking mission of Cynthia’s life.
She just had to survive a fortnight of other people’s flirtations.
“Look!” Cynthia pointed out of the window at a bright red wooden sign rising from the snow.
Welcome to Christmas!
Gertie’s eyes widened. “Is it really Christmastide here all year round?”
Unlike Cynthia, Gertie was not from the northernmost corner of England. Gertie and her family spent half of the year in London, and the other half near Southampton, where Gertie’s father had a seaside manor.
“It really is,” Cynthia said with a grin. “Marlowe Castle sits atop the highest point, overlooking the cheerful little village. Despite its small size, Cressmouth has dozens of entertainments at any moment. What happened to this month’s timetable?”
“Here it is!” Gertie pulled a battered copy of the Cressmouth Gazette out from under Max’s basket, and turned to the long lists of December activities beginning on page four.
Cynthia didn’t need to review the newspaper to know what delights it contained. Accommodations in Cressmouth were expensive, but most of the entertainments were free. Since she lived only an hour’s drive away—an hour and a half, perhaps, in snowy conditions such as these—Cynthia came up to spend the day whenever the Christmas spirit struck her.
In addition to being an absolute paradise for all things Yuletide, Cressmouth’s coziness would be another advantage over the London season.
Gertie’s come-out earlier that year had been a middling success.
Despite failing to mumble a shy response to any of her many smitten suitors, Gertie’s dance card remained full and her father’s mantel fairly sagged under the weight of so many calling cards.
None of the interested parties was good enough for the daughter of an earl, however. Gertie might not speak to strangers, but Lady Gertrude would be a disappointment to her family if she landed anything less than a wealthy aristocrat.
Cynthia knew exactly what it felt like to be a disappointment to one’s family. Now she did it on purpose, but once upon a time she had tried to fit in and to be chosen.
It hadn’t worked.
Her dance card, like the visitor dish upon her mantel, had remained empty.
Gertie, on the other hand, had a fighting chance. Cynthia considered this a rescue mission as much as a matchmaking one. Despite Gertie being all of eighteen years old, her father was planning to betroth her to one of his ancient, lecherous peers as part of a political alliance. Gertie would be miserable.
Cynthia liked Nottingvale. Any woman would be lucky to have him.
Cynthia loved her cousin Gertie. She truly believed the duke wouldn’t be able to help falling in love… if Cynthia could convince Gertie to speak in a voice loud enough to be heard, and to show the duke who she really was.
That was the best part of a Christmastide house party. Intimate close quarters where Nottingvale and Gertie would run into each other a dozen times a day. Even for shy Gertie, It would be impossible to avoid the duke.
“Here we are,” Cynthia said briskly as the carriage pulled up in front of the duke’s so-called cottage.
The only larger residence in Cressmouth was the castle itself.
Smart black carriages stretched down the long winding driveway up to Nottingvale’s cheerful brick façade.
Exquisitely dressed young ladies stepped onto the shoveled path, accompanied by equally proper-looking matrons ranging from hired companions to marriage-minded mothers.
Cynthia recognized most of them. Not the debutantes—she’d been out of society far too long for that. Many of the older ladies had either been in London the same time Cynthia was, or lived near enough to this area that they’d crossed paths in Cressmouth before, perhaps even at one of Nottingvale’s previous parties.
“Ready?” she murmured to Gertie.
Her cousin looked like she was going to be ill. “No.”
The carriage door swung open. A pair of gorgeously liveried footmen Cynthia recognized as Horace and Morris appeared at the opening to hand her and her cousin out of the coach.
“Pluck up, darling.” She dug her elbow into Gertie’s side. “You’re the swan following the ugly duckling into the water. There’s no need for speeches. You smile and curtsey and say ‘How do you do?’ just like we practiced.”
“Can we practice some more?” Gertie whispered. “Maybe we should come back next year.”
“He’s picking a bride this year,” Cynthia reminded her. “This is the only opportunity. If you’re not inside that house when the Duke of Nottingvale…”
There he was.
Right there in the doorway.
He’d only been visible for a brief moment. Half in shadow behind his stoic butler Oswald, a shaft of sunlight had fallen onto the Duke of Nottingvale’s absurdly handsome face and touchably tousled soft brown hair whilst he passed from one side of the entryway to another.
A second or two. The space of a heartbeat.
Cynthia’s breath froze solid in her lungs. She had become as stiff and silent as an icicle, teetering precipitously before a fall.
“All right.” Gertie’s voice was brave as she looped her arm trustingly through Cynthia’s. “I can survive it with you at my side.”
“Wonderful,” Cynthia croaked. Absolutely marvelous. The moment they’d both been waiting for.
It was time to matchmake Nottingvale to her cousin.