An Affair Before Christmas

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by Eloisa James

  Eloisa James

  An Affair Before Christmas

  This book is dedicated to

  Monsignor James Mahoney,

  who always celebrates romance

  as an expression of the deepest human love.

  And what’s more, he served as a model

  for the cover of The Taming of the Duke.




  Ice hung from windowsills with a glitter that rivaled glass,…

  Chapter 1

  “The Duchess of Fletcher,” the butler announced with a magnificent…

  Chapter 2

  “What you need is a mistress. For Christ’s sake man,…

  Chapter 3

  “What’s the matter with my party?” the Duchess of Beaumont…

  Chapter 4

  Fletch knew exactly the type of woman he wanted to…

  Chapter 5

  Jemma could feel a weight fall from her shoulders that…

  Chapter 6

  All laughter disappeared, replaced by civil smiles and deep bows.

  Chapter 7

  Poppy never used to cry before she became a duchess.

  Chapter 8

  He interrupted her. “You used to call me Elijah in…

  Chapter 9

  Fletch didn’t come home for hours. Supper passed, but Poppy…

  Chapter 10

  The Duke of Villiers lay in bed. His shoulder burned …

  Chapter 11

  “I have listened to you for years, Mama,” Poppy said…

  Chapter 12

  “The only way to abate the fever is to bleed…

  Chapter 13

  Fletch emerged from his carriage after spending a tedious afternoon…

  Chapter 14

  The wig was damnably heavy, but no itchier than the…

  Chapter 15

  Jemma was rereading The Noble Game of Chess when her…

  Chapter 16

  It was the beginning of June; the Duke of Villiers…

  Chapter 17

  Poppy wasn’t used to being angry. Now she had a…

  Chapter 18

  Jemma was setting up the pieces, Beaumont opposite her. “I’m…

  Chapter 19

  When Miss Charlotte Tatlock stopped to think about the last…

  Chapter 20

  Poppy didn’t really expect Fletch to visit again, and he…

  Chapter 21

  The Duke of Villiers opened the elegant piece of embossed…

  Chapter 22

  Grudner’s Curiosity Shop was set well back from the street,…

  Chapter 23

  Charlotte didn’t know what to make of the letter when…

  Chapter 24

  Fletch couldn’t go home. In fact, he could never go…

  Chapter 25

  The Duke of Villiers’s bedchamber looked like the back of…

  Chapter 26

  She was a lovely woman. She was plumply curvy, with…

  Chapter 27

  “You ought to be sorry,” Charlotte said, hiccupping. “You are…

  Chapter 28

  The Royal Society met at Somerset House. Jemma and Poppy…

  Chapter 29

  On close observation, Jemma discovered that Lord Strange was as…

  Chapter 30

  The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock…

  Chapter 31

  Fletch had taken a carriage into Hyde Park because he…

  Chapter 32

  “I shall not go to Oxford,” Jemma explained, “because you…

  Chapter 33

  The Ashmolean Museum was a bloody boring place full of…

  Chapter 34

  Charlotte pulled out her Bible and sat down, trying to…

  Chapter 35

  “Just what do you intend to do now?” Poppy was…

  Chapter 36

  Jemma and her husband were nearing the end of their…

  Chapter 37

  Fletch was afraid to turn around. It felt as if…

  Chapter 38

  Fletch stayed downstairs while Poppy took her second bath, which…

  Chapter 39

  It was only as Charlotte climbed out of the hackney…

  Chapter 40

  Poppy came back from Oxford looking as odd as a…

  Chapter 41

  “Are you all right, Your Grace?” Finchley asked for perhaps…

  Chapter 42

  Beaumont’s country estate was near Sturminster Newton, in Dorset, at…

  Chapter 43

  Poppy thought there was a chance—all right, a remote…

  Chapter 44

  Charlotte was very disconcerted to find that she had arrived…

  Chapter 45

  Fletch was in a state of repressed exuberance.

  Chapter 46

  The idea that her mother had a lover was inconceivable.

  Chapter 47

  Dying was not an easy business. Villiers pretty much thought…

  Chapter 48

  Poppy wasn’t herself. She wasn’t the meek, silly daughter of…

  Chapter 49

  “Christmas Eve night,” Villiers said. He could hardly hear his…

  Chapter 50

  It was twilight, Christmas Eve night. The snow wasn’t howling…

  Chapter 51

  Fletch was still a little red in the face, and …

  Chapter 52

  “I don’t want to go outside. It’s cold. It’s Christmas…

  Chapter 53

  When Villiers woke up, the bedroom was lit only …

  Chapter 54

  Poppy woke up blinking because the bedchamber was full of…

  Chapter 55

  “Not one of these costumes is particularly interesting,” the Duke…


  It was Christmas, and a small girl was singing rather…

  A Note on Georgian Curiosities, Including Hair

  About the Author


  Other Books by Eloisa James


  About the Publisher


  With a thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the usual suspects: my brilliant editor, Carrie Feron; my organized and imaginative assistant, Kim Castillo; and my erudite research assistant, Franzeca Drouin. I couldn’t do it without you all!

  The character of Mrs. Patton was inspired by Ann Rosamond, who would have made a terrific Georgian lady!


  Saint Germain des

  Prés Paris, 1778

  Ice hung from windowsills 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 each 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 baguettes, with the gleam of the illicit that touches every heart, even those of proper English noblemen. The duke would have answered that ques
tion 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, Miss 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 En gland, 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 Pellonnière. 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 muff and it seemed the right thing to do.

  “That is disgusting,” she said, glaring at him. “Disgusting! 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 even visits her. He finally came last summer, when Parliament was out.” 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 plea sure 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 plea sure. 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 plea sure, 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.

  Poppy was a practical little soul, at the heart. She could see that her husband’s easygoing manners and sweet eyes masked a sturdy determination to get his own way. One only had to look at his windswept 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 kissin
g 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.


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