Nicola here, continuing our Sunday excerpts from The Last Chance Christmas Ball, (the e-book is on special sale right now for only $.99!) Here's the setting: Christmas 1815. Upstairs and downstairs, Holbourne Abbey is abuzz with preparations for a grand ball to celebrate the year’s most festive—and romantic—holiday. For at the top of each guest’s wish list is a last chance to find true love before the New Year… My story is A Season for Marriage… Lady Caroline Camden is unhappily married to a brilliant MP whose work is his life. In love with her husband and resigned to the fact that he will never love her, Caroline runs back home to Holbourne Abbey, hoping that her old family home will work its magic on her marriage and that against the odds, she and Piers may find happiness…
"Piers knew he looked unforgivably bedraggled to be arriving directly into his hosts’ dining room but he could brook no further delay. He had had the most appalling journey. He had fallen in a snowdrift twice, his horse had gone lame, he had been obliged to hire a carriage and then one of its wheels had come off in a frozen rut. He had tortured himself with the thought that if he had had such a dreadful journey then Caro must have suffered equally. Perhaps she was marooned in an inn or benighted in some cowshed, sheltering from the weather. If he got to Holcombe and found her missing he vowed to venture out immediately to rescue her…
Munton was not to be cheated of his announcement. As he stood back and Piers entered the dining room he saw Caroline at once. She was not marooned, benighted or bedraggled. On the contrary she looked dazzling. Gone were the rather ageing gowns he had been accustomed to seeing her wear at dinners and balls throughout the past six months. Instead she was radiant in a stunning silver gown that seemed to caress each curve, shimmering and sparkling as she moved. She paled a little on seeing him and dropped her fork but she covered up the lapse quickly enough, raising her chin, meeting his eyes, a spark of something intriguing, something challenging, in her own.
The air between them hummed with awareness. Piers blinked, standing riveted to the spot, staring at Caro until the Dowager Countess cleared her throat very pointedly.
“Well, Camden?” She said. “Are you going to keep us all from the rest of our dinner by standing there dripping on the floor? Sit down, man, sit down!” She applied herself to her beef with renewed vigour.
“My dear!” Caroline said sweetly. “How glad I am to see you. I hope you did not have too difficult a journey?”
There was a glimmer of amusement in her eyes as she took in his state of disarray. Piers almost growled as he bent formally to kiss her smooth cheek.
“Not in the least, thank you,” he said. He was startled by a powerful and entirely inappropriate urge to drag Caro into his arms and carry her out of the room to settle their differences in the most fundamental and satisfying way possible. He blinked, wondering what on earth was the matter with him.
He realised that the Dowager Countess still had her beady eye on him – in fact everyone was watching him – so instead of following his baser instincts he was obliged to apologise to the company for his late arrival and to Munton for upsetting the seating plan. The elderly chaplain, who was seated next to Caro, swept his apologies aside as he stood to make way for him.
“There is no difficulty at all, sir, I assure you. I have eaten very well already.”
As he settled himself next to Caro, Piers found that he was seething; with relief and frustration and less definable emotions. Pulling himself together he found himself faced with a plate of beef and a lady on his left who introduced herself as Mrs Lily Tremaine. She was showing a lively interest in the byplay between him and Caroline. Across the table his old friend Edward glowered at him in a somewhat unnerving fashion, as though in speaking to Lily he was committing some cardinal sin.
The long and elaborate dinner continued. Piers doubted that he did justice to any of the courses for they all tasted like ashes in his mouth. He was exerting himself to be courteous to the delightful Mrs Tremaine whilst simultaneously being utterly distracted by Caro on his other side. He imagined that he could feel the warmth of her body. He definitely did feel the brush of her arm against his and the slippery slide of her silken-clad thigh against his leg beneath the table. The gown seemed to be working some sort of perverse enchantment on him. He was so accustomed to seeing Caro bundled up in high-necked gowns with voluminous skirts that the clinging sinuousness of the silver gauze fascinated him, as did the swell of her breasts above the modest edging of lace at the neckline.
The ladies withdrew. Caro left with one long, unreadable backward glance at him that made Piers feel quite hot. He had no idea what was wrong with him. All he knew was that somehow the balance between himself and Caroline had changed and he felt uneasy and not in control. Either that or his fall into the snowdrift had given him a fever.
The port circulated. There was some conversation of a political nature. His opinion as an MP was wide sought. He hoped to heaven that he had made sense. Finally the gentlemen rose to join the ladies. Piers felt an inordinate sense of relief. At last he would be able to get his wife to himself and they could talk.
“Glad you were able to join us, Camden.” Edward caught up with him in the doorway, offering his hand. He lowered his voice, his tone clipped. “Everyone is aware that matters are somewhat awry between yourself and Caroline. I suggest that you smooth them out as swiftly and discreetly as possible.”
And he walked off leaving Piers staring after him.
When Piers entered the drawing room it was to find that Caro was playing the piano and singing softly, a sweet counter point to the buzz of conversation about them. Piers recognised the melody as an old Northumbrian folk song, The Oak and the Ash. It sounded sad, and his heart gave an errant lurch to hear the poignancy in her tone. Had he made her so very unhappy? He had thought that they would deal well together. It was a shock to realise that his judgement had been so flawed.
Caroline played the last chord and the room broke into a smattering of applause. “We must have a duet before the ball begins!” The Countess of Holbourne exclaimed. “Caro darling, will you and Piers sing for us? A carol would be lovely.”
“I am afraid that Piers does not care for music,” Caroline said, before Piers could agree. “We have not been to a single concert nor recital since we wed.”
Piers was silent. Caro was right of course; he knew that she was extremely talented at both playing and singing, and yet over the past six months he had never encouraged her to indulge her love of music. He remembered visiting Holcombe in years past and hearing Caro as he passed the schoolroom door, her voice soaring, effortlessly beautiful. The memory felt bittersweet. When had he lost that open pleasure in Caro’s accomplishments? Was it when he had realised that she cared for him, and had run from that emotion like a coward?"
Do you have a favourite carol or Christmas/festive song you like to listen to or sing along to at this time of year?