How the Dukes Stole Christmas

By: Tessa Dare

MEET ME IN MAYFAIR





TESSA DARE





CHAPTER ONE





Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas this year. A cloud loomed over the Ward sisters’ bedchamber, and it wasn’t the sort that dispensed glittering snowflakes. This would be their last holiday in Mayfair. That was, unless Louisa managed to work a miracle.

Tonight.

Thanks to her friendship with Miss Fiona Carville, she was invited to attend the Carvilles’ lavish holiday ball. If she managed to attract a gentleman tonight, and if said gentleman was both wealthy and generous, and if he fell sufficiently in love with her to propose marriage within the next two weeks—then and only then could Louisa save this Christmas, and all her family’s Christmases thereafter.

No pressure, she thought wryly. None at all.

She drew a deep breath and regarded her half-coiffed reflection in the mirror. She couldn’t afford to indulge her nerves. Not with flame-hot curling tongs mere inches from her scalp.

“Here. Eat this.” Kat thrust a plate under Louisa’s nose.

Without turning her head, Louisa arrowed a glance at the scorched, misshapen lump of … something. A cautious sniff made her stomach turn. Her youngest sister’s experiments in baking could be downright vicious. When you took a bite, they bit back.

“It’s delicious,” Kat sang, waving the shortbread back and forth under Louisa’s nose.

“It’s burnt.”

“Piffle. What’s a bit of brown on the edges?” Kat whisked around her, attacking from the opposite side. She held the plate in front of her mouth and mimicked a tiny, chirping voice coming from the shortbread. “Eat me, Louisa! Eat me!”

“No, thank you.”

“Let her alone, Kat.” Maggie leveled the curling tongs in warning. Although she was the middle sister, the role of family disciplinarian came naturally to her.

Unfortunately, twelve-year-old Kat took just as naturally to the part of irrepressible hellion. She was not so easily deterred.

“You must eat it, Louisa,” Kat said. “While I was packing the books into crates, I found the recipe in a moldy little collection of Scottish folklore. One bite, and every man you meet will fall in love with you. It’s guaranteed to make you irresistible.”

“Guaranteed to make me vomit, I warrant.”

“But this is our last chance,” Kat pleaded. “The whole family is depending on you.”

Really. As if Louisa needed the reminder.

Ages ago, their father had borrowed money from a generous friend—a friend who just happened to be a duke—to purchase the Mayfair row house they called home. For decades, the old duke had ignored the debt on account of their fast friendship. Then he’d died last year, suddenly and without warning, and the mysterious new Duke of Thorndale had called in Papa’s debt. He demanded not only the original amount, but also decades’ worth of compounded interest. Papa had sent letters to the Thorndale estate in Yorkshire, even swallowed his pride and visited the duke’s London solicitors…but no amount of pleading had persuaded the man to leniency.

At the New Year, this house—their beloved home—would belong to a stranger.

Kat thrust the shortbread at her again. “Just one bite. If you’re going to catch a husband at the ball, you need all the help you can get.”

She sighed. “Thank you, poppet, for your faith in my desirability.”

“Louisa would be an exceptional catch for any gentleman.” Maggie pulled a hairpin from her clenched teeth to secure one of Louisa’s chestnut-brown curls.

And yet, she silently lamented, thus far the gentlemen had failed to agree.

Louisa’s parents had raised her to believe in her own worth. She was clever, she loved to laugh, and she was pretty enough that Mama’s friends would occasionally comment on it—but she didn’t possess the kind of beauty that would make a man cross the room, much less convince him to overlook her “flaws.” She’d discouraged more than one would-be suitor with her free opinions and straightforward manner. In the Ward family, the three daughters were encouraged to read and learn and speak their minds in equal measure with their three brothers. A difficult habit to break.

Tonight, she must try.

If she could snare a wealthy husband—one sufficiently generous to pay Papa’s debts—the Ward family could remain in London. If she failed, they would be forced to leave within the month. Not to live in a charming cottage in the Cotswolds or a sleepy village in Surrey. Oh, no. Papa’s sole employment prospect would take them to the Isle of Jersey, of all places.

Jersey.

It might as well be a thousand miles away.

“I tell you,” Kat said, “this marrying scheme is balderdash. If I were the eldest, I’d be carrying out a different plan tonight.”

Maggie sighed. “We’ve discussed this. Murdering the duke is not a plan.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Kat replied. “Murdering the duke is an objective. A plan requires specifics. A concealed pistol. A hidden dagger. Poison-tipped darts.”

“Shortbread,” Louisa suggested.

In retaliation, Kat gave her arm a savage pinch.