Andrea/Cara 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 Old Flames Dance . . . Lily Tremaine has accepted that girlish dreams don't always come true. A widow, she's returned to England from ten years in India, intent on living a quiet life alone in a cottage by the sea. But first she's accepted her godmother's invitation to a festive holiday ball—even though the dowager's grandson was the man who broke her heart. She's told herself that the flames of youthful love have long since burned to cold coals. However, on seeing Edward again—who have never married—a spark seems to kindle again. However, word is, he's about to announce his engagement . . . and so if there's to be a second chance at love, Lily will have to trust her heart . . .
Lily hurried up the stairs. She had excused herself from the after-dinner gathering in the drawing room, saying she needed a little extra time to dress for the ball. The explanation drew a questioning look from Lady Holly, which she had quickly evaded.
Choices, choices. As her feet flew over the treads, Lily still wasn’t certain what to do. Her maid was laying out two outfits—one daring to risk it all, one conceding defeat.
“La, just look at how this featherlight scarlet silk glitters in the candlelight!” As she entered her room, Colleen floated an end of the gold-threaded sari through the air. “Why, it’s like a tongue of fire, darting soft as a whisper though the shadows.”
“You’ve been reading too much of Lord Byron’s poetry,” muttered Lily.
“There’s nothing wrong with being wildly, passionately romantic at times,” shot back Colleen, adding a last little flutter. “Life would be awfully dull without a blaze of heat to warm yer cockles.”
She reluctantly set the sari back on the bed and smoothed out the creases. Next to it lay a traditional ballgown fashioned in a muted shade of smoke-blue silk. “So, have you decided which one to wear?”
Lily picked up a silver box from the dressing table and slowly sorted through her jewelry. “I . . . I . . .” Taking up a long, dangling gold filigree teardrop earring—the pair had been the most exotic ornaments she had ever purchased—she closed her eyes.
“I shall let Fate decide,” she said, and then tossed it in a high arc toward the bed.
She waited a long moment before letting one lid open.
“Well, it looks like Fate is a Lady after me own heart,” murmured Colleen with a grin.
Her maid’s hands, noticed Lily, were carefully clasped behind her back.
“We had better start dressing, Mrs. T. It requires a great deal of pleating and pulling to get all the fabric to fall just right.” Colleen rolled up the ballgown and shoved it back into one of the trunks. “And a handful of pins.”
After a lengthy interlude, Colleen finally stepped back to admire her handiwork. “You look . . . like a goddess straight out of one of them fancy Moghul paintings,” she exclaimed. “All the gentlemen are going to drop their teeth in the punchbowl when you float into the room.”
“Let us hope not,” said Lily dryly. “It would quite ruin the dowager’s special mixture of champagne and strawberries.” But after mustering the courage to look at her reflection in the cheval glass, she had to admit that the sari was rather striking.
“You don’t think it’s too flashy?” she asked, setting the silk in motion with a tentative twirl.
“It’s perfect,” answered Colleen. “It’s a special night, and you deserve to set off a few sparks.” She reached out and loosened one of Lily’s honey-gold curls. “There—now go and dance until dawn.”
“I may have to in order to stay warm.” The sari bared more flesh than an English ballgown, and in very un-English places. Her breasts were . . . Better not to look at the front of her sari, lest she lose what little courage remained.
A glance at the mantel clock showed the ball was about to begin. But deciding she needed an interlude alone to compose her nerves before facing Edward and Roxie, Lily took up her matching red shawl and made her way to the library. As she had hoped, it was deserted, though a fire was still burning brightly in the hearth. Wandering to the chessboard, she picked up the ivory queen, hoping it might serve as a talisman, allowing her to draw strength for the coming few hours. Chess, she mused, was an apt metaphor for life—the complicated strategies were all about risk and reward.
“But I must be realistic,” she whispered. “It’s all very well to dream of fairytale endings, but such enchantments rarely happen in the real world.”
After a moment, Lily replaced the queen on its square and sat down to study the board. Someone had left a half-finished game. As of yet, it was impossible to see whether white or black held the advantage. Taking up the challenge, she slowly began to move the pieces.
“Have a care. The white knight is in danger.”
Lost in thought, Lily nearly fell off her chair at the sound of Edward’s voice.
He crossed the carpet, the glass of amber-colored whisky held close to his chest casting deep gold shadows over the intricate white folds of his cravat. His evening clothes were dark as midnight and finely tailored to show off the long, lean lines of his body. He looked so impossibly handsome, the chiseled planes of his face softened by the exquisite drape of the wool and linen.
The perfect English gentleman.
Acutely aware of her exotic clothing and her hopeless longings, Lily suddenly felt like a perfect fool.
Edward took a swallow of the spirits, then set down his drink beside the board. “Let me take a look.” His gaze skimmed over the squares, hit the end of the board and slowly lifted.
His jaw dropped ever so slightly. “What are you wearing?”
“A sari,” she answered. “Lady Holly thought it might add a unique twist to her fiftieth anniversary ball.” It was dimly lit in the alcove, and his dark lashes made it impossible to read his expression. “But on second thought, I think I ought to change into a more conventional gown.”
As Lily stood up, she heard the hiss of air leaving his lungs.
“Don’t,” he said in a whisper as soft as the silk. “Grandmamma is quite right. It will make for a memorable evening.”
“I have a feeling the ball will be exceedingly memorable, but because of your announcement, not my attire.” She somehow managed to keep her voice from quivering. “Again, I wish you joy, Edward. May you and your future bride be very happy together.”
He continued to stare in silence.
Sure that she had shocked him to his very core, Lily was desperate to slink away. “I really ought to change. This wasn’t a good idea.”
How do you feel about second chances stories? Is the "older, wiser hero and heroine" trope one you enjoy, or do you prefer the heady passion of first love?