Title: Last Woman Standing
Author: Regina Jeffers
Genre: Regency Romance, Historical Fiction, British Historical Romance
She is simply his grandmother’s companion.
However, when the Christmas ball ends, the last woman standing wins the marquess.
JACKSON SHAW, the Marquess of Rivens, never considered the “gypsy blessing” presented to his family during the time of Henry VIII truly a blessing. He viewed it more as a curse. According to the “blessing,” in his thirtieth year, at the Christmas ball hosted by his family, he was to choose a wife among the women attending. The catch was he possessed no choice in the matter. His wife was to be the one who proved herself to be his perfect match, according to the gypsy’s provisions: a woman who would bring prosperity to his land by her love of nature and her generous heart. In his opinion, none of the women vying for his hand appeared to care for anything but themselves.
EVELYN HAWTHORNE comes to River’s End to serve as the companion to the Marchioness of Rivens, his lordship’s grandmother. However, Lady Rivens has more than companionship in mind when she employs the girl, whose late father was a renown horticulturalist. The marchioness means to gather Gerald Hawthorne’s rare specimens to prevent those with less scrupulous ideas from purchasing Hawthorne’s conservatory, and, thereby, stealing away what little choice her grandson has in naming a wife, for all the potential brides must present the Rivenses with a rare flower to demonstrate the lady’s love of nature. Little does the marchioness know Hawthorne’s daughter might not only know something of nature, but be the person to fulfill the gypsy’s blessing.
She had feared what would happen to her father if she had abandoned him, for Gerald Hawthorne had had no one but her to love him. “Then he abandoned me,” she said softly to no one in particular.
“Who abandoned you?” a familiar voice asked.
Evelyn dipped a quick curtsey. “Good afternoon, my lord. Do you require my service?”
The gentleman stepped further into the conservatory. He nodded toward the small stove she had lit earlier. “It is quite chilly outside.”
“Yes, my lord.” She paused awkwardly when she glanced up at him, realizing once again how devastatingly handsome the marquess was. “I beg your pardon, my lord.” She repeated her question, “Did you seek me out for the marchioness?”
He shook off the idea. “My grandmother and I have finished our meeting with Mrs. Astor regarding the arrangements for the house party. Her ladyship has taken to her bed for a short rest.” He stroked the back of the leaf of a lemon tree. “I understand I am in your debt. Lady Rivens says it was your suggestion that I might choose to join the other single gentlemen in the dower house during the length of the party.”
Evelyn heaved a rueful sigh. “After Lady Rivens explained the number of ladies who would expect you to pay attendance—.”
He spoke in disapproving tones. “You mean those who wish to discover me in an empty room so they can claim being compromised?”
“There is that also,” she reluctantly admitted.
“Why is it you never scream the word ‘compromise’ when you and I are often alone together, as we are now?”
Evelyn’s heart hitched higher with his question. “You are my employer, sir. Naturally, we might encounter each other when others are not about.”
“You and I do more than encounter each other in the practice of your duties,” he argued, moving closer. “You must realize I seek you out repeatedly because I enjoy your company.”
Although the idea pleased her, Evelyn spoke in firm tones, as she moved one plant into a larger pot. “I, too, cherish our conversations, my lord, but I fully comprehend once you take a wife, those conversations cannot continue. I am well aware of my place in your household, a position for which I am very grateful.” When she turned, Lord Rivens was nearer than she had expected.
He caressed her cheek with his palm. “Then you do not fear me. You do not think I hold nefarious and, likely, self-serving, reasons for spending time with you?”
“No,” she replied quickly. Evelyn knew the marquess to be handsome, intelligent, spontaneous, and a bit prideful. She also knew, despite her original accusations regarding his character, he was a gentleman. A gentleman accustomed to having his own way, but a gentleman, nonetheless.
“Excellent. I do not debauch young maidens, especially those in my employ,” he said softly. “Even those who possess the softest skin I have ever touched.” He leaned slowly toward her. Evelyn knew she should put a stop to his manipulations, but she was excessively curious as to whether a second kiss might match the one he had presented her previously. Unfortunately, the moment was not to be, as Mrs. Duckworth strolled through the still open door, followed by her brood of goslings. “Honk!”
His lordship jumped back before spinning around to face the intruder, but Evelyn nudged him aside before the marquess could reach the goose. “Mrs. Duckworth!” she exclaimed, kneeling down to greet the honking goslings.
“Dare I ask why you named a goose Mrs. Duckworth?” he demanded in questionable amusement.
“Mrs. Gooseworth sounded odd, and she does not seem to mind, do you, love?” She lowered her voice in a conspiratorial tone, “Moreover, as it is customary to c-o-o-k a g-o-o-s-e for Christmas, I thought it better to name her Mrs. Duckworth.”
He chuckled and said, “‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.’”
“Henry IV, Part Two,” she repeated without thought to her words, “and you sound like your grandmother.” She stroked the goose’s neck and back. “Are you looking for your meal?”
“You feed the geese?”
She turned to note a slight shake of his head in what appeared to be disbelief. “Naturally. In Northamptonshire, I always fed Papa’s animals. That way he could keep them out of his precious plants. Is that not correct, Puddles?” She scooped up one of the goslings and held it to her chest.
The marquess barked a laugh. “Puddles?”
“You would understand if you had viewed this gosling when I first met him, or her,” she said with a grin. “Evidently, my darling Puddles ate something he should not. He squirted more water than food each time he took a step, leaving little puddles behind, rather than the customary nugget.”
“You are adorable, Miss Hawthorne,” his lordship said with a smile matching hers. “Do you intend to fatten Mrs. Duckworth up yourself?” He knelt beside her and claimed another of the goslings who were honking and pecking at the floor where she had earlier crumbled a stale piece of bread into tiny pieces to tempt them.
“If so, I shan’t enjoy Christmas supper,” she declared readily. “And I swear I give them only food from my own plate or what Cook must throw away. Please say you do not mind my acting so foolishly. I promise the geese will not be a nuisance.”
He smiled upon her. “I fear, my dear, such is a promise you do not have the ability to keep, for, surely, someone will complain about the noise or Puddle’s puddles, but I hold no objection to your indulging the animals upon the manor if it makes you happy.”
Evelyn could not recall a time since before her mother’s passing that someone had done something to make her happy. It was all she could do not to throw her arms around his lordship’s neck and kiss him in gratitude.
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What I love most about the holiday season:
I love watching the joy of Christmas upon my grandchildren’s faces when they come down to view the Christmas tree with all the gifts beneath it. If one could truly capture that moment and hold onto it all year round, the world would be a better place to live. The sweet magic of Christmas should not only fill our hearts on that particular day, but bring warmth and blessings throughout one’s days.
Why is your featured book a must-read to get you in the holiday mood?
The tale has everything: a gypsy curse or, as some call it, a blessing, a handsome marquess, a bit of intrigue, a woman worth knowing, a feisty grandmother, and a happily ever after, all set against the backdrop of a Christmas ball and the promise of a truly blessed New Year.
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Regina Jeffers, an award-winning author of historical cozy mysteries, Austenesque sequels and retellings, as well as Regency era romances, has worn many hats over her lifetime: daughter, student, military brat, wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, tax preparer, journalist, choreographer, Broadway dancer, theatre director, history buff, grant writer, media literacy consultant, and author. Living outside of Charlotte, NC, Jeffers writes novels that take the ordinary and adds a bit of mayhem, while mastering tension in her own life with a bit of gardening and the exuberance of her “grand joys.”
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