Wedding Her Christmas Duke
Seductive Scoundrels Book 8
He’s not who he says he is…but then again, neither is she…
Duke Baxter Bathhurst has little use for his title. He’d much rather manage his businesses than spend time with the marriage-minded misses of the ton. But then he meets her. Stranded at his hotel during a snowstorm, the green-eyed enchantress is spirited, wickedly smart, and everything he never knew he wanted in a wife. Now all he has to do is convince her not to turn him away when she learns who he really is.
Justina Farthington is living a lie. If anyone were to discover her secret, she’d be ruined. So, she meticulously adheres to social strictures and avoids drawing any unwanted censure. Until she meets him. All her best-laid plans go up in flames after one passionate night with the devilishly handsome Highlander. If only she was who she pretended to be…
Baxter is determined to make Justina his Christmas bride. But it’ll take more than mistletoe and the magic of the holiday season to guide these polar opposites to their happily ever after…
Secrets, scandals, and scorching romance.
This historical holiday romance will have you rooting Baxter and Justina on to their much-deserved merry Christmas and happily-ever-after.
If you enjoy reading lovable rogue or duke romances with a pinch of mystery, a dash of humor, and soul-searing emotion, then you’ll adore the enthralling SEDUCTIVE SCOUNDRELS SERIES. Buy WEDDING HER CHRISTMAS DUKE and settle into your favorite reading nook with a warm beverage for a page-turning, entertaining Regency world adventure you can’t put down.
Bathhurst Hotel and Spa
Bath, Somerset, England
15 November 1810
Justina Farthington laughed as she and her widowed aunt, Emily Grenville, tried in vain to dodge the large, soggy snowflakes sifting from the pewter gray sky with the rambunctious abandon of a litter of kittens playing in a sack of spilled flour. The pathway to the hotel wasn’t long, but the snow made walking difficult.
“It’s a good thing we didn’t plan on reaching home today,” Justina said, tilting her head to better study the ominous sky. A plump snowflake plopped onto her chin, and she laughed again. Grateful for her warm leather gloves, she swiped the moisture away. “We’d never have made it to Bristol in this weather.”
“In all of my years, I have never known it to snow this heavily in Somerset in November,” Aunt Emily declared, clutching Justina’s hand for balance.
A good five inches of snow had already accumulated. Though it was scarcely an hour past one in the afternoon, steel gray blanketed the town so popular with the upper ten thousand, giving the appearance of early twilight. The pouting sky showed no signs of relenting in its unrepentant white onslaught upon the earth either.
Surely snow in Somerset wasn’t so scarce.
“Yes, all thirty of them,” Justina remarked dryly while concentrating on keeping snow from sneaking into her half-boots. “And because you’re so well-traveled.”
“Hush, Justina Madalene Honoria Farthington. Really. Reminding me of my advanced age and that I’m on the shelf is beyond the pale,” Emily huffed good-naturedly, even as a frown puckered her brow.
Oh, my heavens. Auntie used my full name. She is in a fine fettle, then.
“Lest you forget, I am widowed and a decade your senior. And, I’ll remind you, dear niece, that I have seen much more of this often-unforgiving world than you.”
“Of course,” Justina murmured demurely.
Aunt Emily wasn’t done, however.
“You know full well I accompanied my brother on his diplomatic jaunts for several years. It simply does not snow several inches before Christmastide in our part of the world.”
A touch of genuine concern had leeched into her usually tranquil tones.
Was her aunt worried they’d be stranded here?
What did it matter?
Their finances, though not abundant, were sufficient to accommodate an extended stay. No one except two doddering servants, well past their prime, awaited them at home in Bristol. And the Sutcliffes’ Christmastide house party didn’t begin until the twenty-second of December—a full month away.
In point of fact, Justina and her aunt were invited to come a few days prior. Nonetheless, they could while away for a fortnight in Bath, and no one would be the wiser, much less worried or concerned.
A grin played around the edges of Justina’s mouth.
Oh, how she looked forward to the Sutcliffes’ house party.
Her dearest friends—young women she’d met at the finishing school her widowed aunt had insisted she attend—were also invited. Genuine excitement that today’s gloomy weather and the disruption to their travel plans couldn’t diminish bubbled along her veins.
Clutching Justina’s hand tighter, Aunt Emily clicked her tongue, reminding Justina very much of their elderly neighbor, Gertrude Howerton.
Nearly blind and well on her way to becoming deaf as well, Gertrude was forever fussing over something, tsking, clucking, and murmuring, “Mercy,” or “God save me,” while forcefully pounding her cane on whatever unfortunate surface she happened to be upon, or prodding the legs of whoever happened to be in proximity of the flailing stick.
She was precisely the type of eccentric old bird Justina hoped she’d be in her dotage.
Though still a beautiful woman, Aunt Emily dressed and acted like a seventy-year-old spinster. If a man so much as gave her a second glance, with her lips pursed, she turned her frostiest green-eyed star upon him. Usually, that was sufficient to send any would-be swains trotting hastily in the other direction.
She never—truly never—spoke of her marriage or dead husband, an officer in His Majesty’s Navy.
Once that first year together, struggling to find the right words in her stilted English,
Justina had dared ask Emily about her husband. Distress had ravaged her aunt’s pretty features before she’d managed, “It is not something I ever speak of.
Justina had never poked her nose into Aunt Emily’s personal business again. Somehow, she sensed it wasn’t just grief that tied her aunt’s tongue and caused the haunted shadows in her pretty eyes.
“It is most unfortunate that the Royal Arms Hotel suffered fire damage, and we are obliged to find lodgings elsewhere.” Aunt Emily signaled the drivers to wait. “Richard always insisted we stay at the Royal Arms.”
In truth, this was the third establishment the women had stopped at, seeking rooms for the night. Who would’ve guessed so many dratted people were traveling in November despite the awful roads?
With a wan smile, Aunt Emily allowed, “My brother was rather rigid and unyielding in his ways. A deeply devout man, Richard never stepped over the mark or outside Society’s strictures.”
Justina kept her response to herself. Whenever Aunt Emily mentioned Richard Farthington, Justina couldn’t prevent her heart from cramping. Not over his death, for she hadn’t known the man, but for all that had come afterward.
Could he really have been gone nearly a decade?
How well she remembered that day less than a month before her tenth birthday. The day after her beloved mother had died in their humble Viennese hovel and her cantankerous Austrian grandfather had presented Justina at Richard Farthington’s doorstep, proclaiming she was his illegitimate daughter.
“I’ve no use for a uneheliches Kind” —bastard child— “under my feet,” grandfather had pronounced coldly in his German spattered, halting English. “Farthington impregnated my daughter, and he can deal with das Mädchen now that my Elsa is gone, ja?”
He hadn’t even looked back but had left Justina standing bereft and teary-eyed with an equally confused and grief-stricken Emily Grenville. She’d buried her brother, Richard, a mere two days prior after he’d succumbed to lung fever.
Except for each other, Justina and Aunt Emily were indeed two women alone in the world.
As always, when reminiscing about her previous life, melancholy infused Justina.
She cut a sideways glance at the woman who’d become mother, sister, and friend to her in the ensuing years. The woman who’d accepted a child she neither knew nor could vouch for her paternity and brought that same frightened and sad little girl to England to be raised as a gentle-woman. The only person, save Wenzel Trattner, Justina’s grandfather, who knew the secret of her birth and guarded it like the most precious of gems.
Aunt Emily had, however, changed Justina’s given name from Friederike, giving her a feminine version of Richard Farthington’s middle name, Justin. For that, Justina was grateful. Simply put, Friederike was a mouthful, and she would have had to continually explain her name’s origin had she kept it. Although, in retrospect, she might’ve enjoyed being called Freddie.
The great-granddaughter of a viscount, Emily Grenville, had taken a grief-stricken child beneath her wing that awful afternoon when the charcoal grey Vienna sky had also been cloaked with grumpy clouds.
A few years later, Justina had learned that Emily’s branch of the family had long ago spurned contact with the distant relations they had peppered about England and beyond. No reason was given for the estrangement.
Shorter than Justina, at just two inches above five feet, and older than her by ten years, Emily was the opposite of Justina in almost every way, except for the green eyes they shared.
Justina’s were a pale green while Emily’s were darker jade. The eye color did not signify paternity, as they both well knew. But it did aid in strengthening the fabricated tale Aunt Emily had concocted that long-ago day. Thus far, no one had questioned the story. It contained just enough scandal to titillate and a thread of truth that could neither be proven nor disproven.
To the world, Justina was Richard Farthington’s daughter. His Viennese wife, Justina’s mother, had died in childbirth.
End of story.
Only it wasn’t.
For one thing, Justina and Aunt Emily, save for their eyes, looked nothing alike.
Aunt Emily was golden-haired, possessed of a keen wit, and pragmatic to the point of causing Justina to grind her teeth on occasion. She possessed an oval face, winged eyebrows, and though not precisely beautiful in the traditional sense, she attracted men like plump blossoms did bees in the summertime. She’d received a half dozen marriage proposals since putting aside her mourning weeds.
All of which she’d declined with the alacrity of a starving urchin stealing a sweetmeat from a baker.
Emily Grenville was determined to never—ever—marry again. Something that Justina was just as determined to thwart. For, truth be told, if anyone deserved love, companionship, and children, it was her unselfish aunt.
Justina, on the other hand, possessed straight light brown hair, a diamond-shaped face with a chin she thought much too pointed, and eyebrows that refused to arch no matter how studiously she plucked the dashed things. Her curves, especially her breasts, were abundant compared to Emily’s gentle swells.
Although Aunt Emily argued otherwise, Justina felt certain her aunt had rejected those marriage offers because she refused to sequester Justina at a country house and go on with her life.
When she’d taken on the responsibility of Justina’s care, she’d scarcely been twenty years old herself. Fourteen years younger than Richard Farthington, after their parents had died, Emily had acted as her brother’s hostess for five of those years.
Well, except for the two months she’d been married.
Two months—then tragically widowed.
What had scarred Aunt Emily so that she avoided any mention of her marriage or her husband, Lieutenant Clement Grenville?
Someday, Justina would know the truth.
In any event, Aunt Emily had been her brother’s sole heir. Prudently managed—and Emily was nothing if not prudent—his bequeathment had proven sufficient to support the two women in relative comfort as long as they practiced economies. Theirs was not a luxurious lifestyle by any means, but they needn’t be ashamed of their social standing either.
Farther down the lane, children squealed and ran about pelting each other with snowballs or pulling one another along on sleds. A wonder they even owned sleds, so infrequent was snow here.
A black dog yapped, its tail wagging furiously as it chased after the snowballs. Three industrious boys were intent on building a snowman while two little girls lay upon their backs making snow angels.
There’d be many cold noses, fingers, and toes, and no doubt hot chocolate or perhaps mulled wine to chase away the chill this afternoon. In truth, at the moment, a hot toddy sounded utterly divine.
An unwelcome memory pushed to the forefront of Justina’s mind: a petite girl in a pale blue cloak laying on her back and making a snow angel.
As quickly as the recollection had intruded, it vanished.
She’d been that little girl. But as with the other memories of her former life, that vision swirled around the edges of her memory before floating away. Try as she might, she could no longer summon the image of her mother’s face but remembered her kind blue eyes and her pretty voice as she sang to Justina.
She and her aunt tramped up the four steps to Bathhurst Hotel and Spa and stomped their snow-caked half-boots upon the colorful braided rug outside the door.
Somewhere within, a dog woofed a canine greeting.
A small frown forming two lines on her forehead, Emily squinted at the newly painted sign and then slowly took in the welcoming porch.
“I think the hotel has recently been painted and refurbished.” She pointed at the sign. “And renamed, as well. It was simply The Bath House the last time I was in Bath.”
A decade ago?
Justina took in the dark green script announcing the establishment’s name as well as the well-appointed porch upon which sat several rocking chairs, a porch swing, and two benches. All contained cushions and thick throws for those guests bold enough to brave the outdoors in November.
Aunt Emily brushed the snow from the shoulders of her wren-brown redingote then raised her black-gloved fist to knock upon the door, painted the same vibrant green as the sign. However, before she rapped, the carved panel swung inward, revealing a footman attired in neat green and black livery.
A black patch covered his left eye, and a wicked-looking scar creased his cheek and jaw.
A former soldier?
“I think the new owner has a penchant for green,” Justina whispered out the side of her mouth.
The footman’s lips twitched, and his good eye, a warm and friendly pale brown, twinkled in merriment. “Indeed, he does admire the shade a great deal. Wait until you see the dining room and the greenhouse. All manner of exotic birds are housed there, every one of them rescued in one manner or another.”
Ah, so the man has a tender heart.
Pride evident in his voice and bearing, the servant declared, “Mr. Bathhurst is quite the philanthropist.”
The man was vain enough to name the establishment after himself. Certainly not unusual, but it did give one pause.
As if reading Justina’s thoughts, Aunt Emily queried, “Bathhurst?” She tapped the small dimple in her chin. “The name is familiar, though I cannot think why. Perhaps he is an acquaintance of one of our ducal friends.”
Aunt Emily referred to several of Justina’s school friends, six of which were now married to dukes.
Duchesses, each and every one, and not all nobly born.
But none were bastards, either.
Justina stepped inside, taking in the polished parquet flooring and a pair of matching tufted benches on either side of the foyer. These were seafoam green, rather than the emerald hue of the front door. A marble-topped rosewood table flanked each bench, and at the far end of the entrance, a pair of highbacked chairs—not green, but claret-colored—drew one’s attention to another table upon which appeared to be a chess set.
Clearly, the entry was intended to be used for more than guests entering and exiting the establishment. If felt homey and hospitable, the furnishings tasteful and understated, but of unmistakable quality.
A scraggly dog in mottled shades of black, brown, and gray and favoring his front left paw emerged from a room farther along the corridor and lifted its nose, sniffing the air. Evidently satisfied Justina and her aunt were not a threat, he lumbered forward, his gait uneven.
He plopped on his haunches beside Justina, gazing at her expectantly, and she ran a hand over his soft head. He whimpered and rested his head against her leg, staring at her adoringly.
The flirt. Did the little beggar hope to get more pets?
“Do you have any rooms available?” Aunt Emily asked without preamble.
Her aunt’s inquiry snapped Justina back to the present, and she offered a hopeful smile. Good gracious, what were they to do if Bathhurst Hotel and Spa were full as well? Many of the hotels had closed for the off-season, and she’d considered them fortunate that this lodging house was open so near the main route to Bristol.
“Indeed, we do, ladies.” The footman nodded in the affirmative as another joined him.
This one boasted a distinct limp, and upon further covert inspection, Justina realized he was missing two fingers on his right hand.
Yes, most definitely a former soldier.
Her opinion of Mr. Bathhurst rose another notch.
Many employers wouldn’t hire those maimed by war, and yet not only did Mr. Bathhurst rescue birds, of all things, but he also gave positions to those most in need.
“We’ll see to your bags. You can check in there.” The second footman angled his head toward a gleaming mahogany counter, paralleling a staircase to the upper floors. “I am Coyle, and this is Perkins.” He indicated the first footman. “Oh, and the dog’s name is Duke. Mr. Bathhurst has a sardonic sense of humor.”
Indeed, he did, for Justina had never seen a less aristocratic appearing canine in her entire life.
“Welcome, to Bathhurst Hotel and Spa,” a wiry little man, wearing spectacles boomed from beside the gleaming counter. “We just finished updating and refurbishing the hotel.”
Justina started at the commanding voice coming from such a diminutive man. He couldn’t have been above four feet in stature, and she realized he must be a dwarf. Behind his spectacled eyes, lively intelligence and humor shone. Liking him at once, she returned his congenial smile.
“I am Solomon Bixby, manager of this fine establishment,” he announced, pride ringing in his unique voice. “You’ve arrived in time for afternoon tea in the drawing room, ladies. We’ve six other guests staying with us presently,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “We’ll see that the fires are stoked in your chambers, and they’ll be warm as bread fresh from the oven in no time.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bixby. That sounds simply wonderful.” As she usually did, Emily took charge.
Of late, that habit had begun to grate on Justina a bit. She was far more capable than her overly-protective aunt allowed. Others had noticed Emily’s protectiveness too. Why, at the Twistleton’s musical last March, she’d overheard two nobles referring to Aunt Emily as a dragon.
Affront for the woman she’d called aunt for a decade encompassed Justina. Aunt Emily was nothing like an angry, violent, intimidating dragon. She was simply cautious and guarded. A young widow having a ward thrust upon her and having to navigate Society without raising suspicion wasn’t easy.
Keeping the secret they both well knew could destroy them wasn’t easy either.