An Affair Before Christmas Page 1

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Prologue


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 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, 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.

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