Mary Balogh

Christmas Beau

Chapter 1

It felt strange to be dressing up to go out again. And strange to be wearing a blue gown. She had gone straight from black to colors when her year of mourning had ended the week before, with no intermediate stages of gray or lavender.

Not only strange. It felt somehow wrong to be dressing to go out to enjoy herself with the children in bed in the nursery. Especially since she had during the past week denied them what might have brought them great pleasure. She had refused to go to Scotland with her parents in order to spend Christmas with her sister. The journey would be too tedious for the children, she had decided, especially Kate, who was scarcely three years old.

A whole month before that she had refused an invitation to spend Christmas with Andrew's family at Ammanlea, although there was the country estate for the children to run free on and several other children for them to play with. She had refused because she had always felt almost as if her identity was swallowed up by their large numbers. And because she did not particularly want any reminders of Andrew.

The thought brought further guilt. He had been her husband, after all, and father of her two children.

It seemed that they would be spending Christmas alone together in London, the three of them, with Amy. It was a bleak prospect, though preferable to either of the two alternatives.

Blue. Judith Easton ran her hands lightly over the soft silk of her new evening gown and looked down at the flounces at the hem and the blue silk slippers beneath. Her favorite color. How very delightful it was to look down and not see unrelieved black. Even after a week the novelty of being out of mourning had not worn off.

Her fair hair had been looped down over her ears and dressed in ringlets at the back of her head. It was an elegant style, she thought, though perhaps she should be donning a turban as more in keeping with her age and widowed status.

She was twenty-six years old. Did she look it? she wondered, glancing in the mirror. She did not feel that old. Being back in London again and living in her parents' home while they were in Scotland, the years seemed to roll away. It did not seem as if almost eight years had passed since her come-out Season. Though there were two children in the nursery to prove that it was indeed so.

She turned from the mirror and picked up her cloak and fan. She did not want to think of her come-out Season. The memories made her shudder with shame and embarrassment. The only consolation had always been that she had escaped from a dreaded marriage. But then, the one that had replaced it had quickly brought disillusion and heartache.

She tiptoed into the nursery, but Rupert was sitting up in bed frowning over a book, and even Kate was still awake, her cheeks flushed, her dark eyes wide.

"Mama," she asked, her lower lip wobbling, "don't be gone long."

"By the time you wake in the morning," Judith said, bending over the child to kiss her, "I shall have been home a long time. Nurse will be close by. You have nothing to fear. And Aunt Amy will be in the house."

"Mr. Freeman will not still be here tomorrow, Mama, will he?" Rupert asked with a frown, looking at her over the top of his book.

"He is being obliging enough to escort me to Lady Clancy's this evening," Judith said, crossing to her son's bed and kissing the top of his head. "That is all."

"Good," Rupert said, ducking his head down behind his book again.

Claude Freeman was a former acquaintance of Andrew's, who had come to pay his respects to her when she came to London two months before and had called at regular intervals ever since. He was a large man with a pompous manner. Unfortunately, his overhearty efforts to befriend her children had met with no success.

"I must go," Judith said, straightening up and smiling at both children. "Mr. Freeman will be waiting downstairs for me. Sleep well."

"Mama," Kate said, "you look pretty."

Judith smiled and blew a kiss.

She still felt guilty as she went down the stairs. She and Andrew had lived in the country for all of their married life. The only social occasion she had known for several years had been the dinners and assemblies there, and they had not been numerous. Though it would be more accurate to say that she had lived in the country all that time. Andrew had frequently spent weeks and even months alone in town.

Claude was in the hallway, looking large and imposing in his evening cloak and silk hat. He looked even larger in comparison with Amy, who was tiny and birdlike. A battle with smallpox as a child had left her pale and undergrown, her complexion marred by a few pockmarks. She had been made for marriage and motherhood, Judith had always thought, but both had eluded her thanks to the cruelty of fate. She was Andrew's elder sister. Judith had invited her to live with them after his death since no one else in the family appeared to want her. Amy had accepted with unexpected eagerness.

"Judith," Amy said as Claude took her cloak from her hands and wrapped it about her shoulders, "how lovely you look again. Black is really not your color."

Nor was it Amy's. She did not need black to sap her of the last vestiges of color. Even her hair was a faded blond. Amy must be thirty-six years old, Judith thought. Time marched on.

"My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Easton," Claude said, standing back and making her an elegant bow. "I shall be the envy of the ton this evening."

Judith smiled. There was a definite excitement about going out again to a ton event, even if it was only a soirйe and not a full ball. She had had a few invitations during the past month. She had chosen her first appearance with care.

Yes, there was a lifting of the spirits. There was no denying it. But there was also an apprehension that was making her stomach churn rather uncomfortably. She supposed that such a feeling was natural for someone returning to society after eight years away. But there was more to it than that.

Would the old scandal be remembered? she wondered. Would she be snubbed? She did not really believe it would be quite as bad as that. Surely she would not have had any invitations at all if she were still considered to be in disgrace. And Claude would not be so eager to escort her if she was to be ostracized.

But there would doubtless be some who would remember that she had been formally betrothed for all of two months during the Season seven and a half years ago and that she had broken off that betrothal abruptly and without any public announcement-or any private explanation to her betrothed-in order to run off to the country to marry Andrew.

She had acted very badly. Even at the time, she had known that. But she had been so young, so terrified, so bewildered. She had found herself quite unable to face the consequences of her change of heart-no, there had been no change of heart since there had been no love or even affection involved in that betrothal. But however it was, she had been unable to do things properly. She had fled with her sister and her maid, leaving her parents to find the note she had left behind and to smooth things over as well as they were able before following along after her.

She smiled determinedly at Claude and took his arm. That was all eight years in the past, a girl's gaucherie. She was a different person now, with a different name. And she was about to begin her life without Andrew.

She was free. There was exhilaration in the thought.

"You are quite sure you will not come too?" she asked Amy. It was a foolish question to ask when she was ready to step out the door, but it was not the first time she had asked.

"I have never attended a ton event, Judith," Amy said. "I would positively die and not know where to hide myself. You run along and have a lovely time. I shall stay here in case the children need me. And I shall imagine all the conquests you are making."

Judith laughed. "Good night, then," she said. "But one of these times I shall drag you out with me, Amy."

Her sister-in-law smiled, and looked wistful only as the door closed behind Judith and Mr. Freeman. How she sometimes wished… But she was far too old for such wishes. And she must count her blessings. At last she had a home where she felt wanted and useful. And she was in London, where she had always wanted to be.

Amy turned and climbed the stairs to her sitting room.

Judith's exhilaration continued. Lord and Lady Clancy received her graciously, and Claude took her about their drawing room on his arm until they stopped at a group where she found the conversation particularly interesting. Soon Claude had wandered off, and she felt as thoroughly comfortable as if she had never been away.

For perhaps the span of ten minutes, anyway.

At the end of that time, the lady standing next to Judith stood back with a smile to admit a new member to the group.

"Ah," she said, "so you did come after all, my lord. Do join us. You know everyone, of course. Except perhaps Mrs. Easton? The Marquess of Denbigh, ma'am."

Was it possible for one's stomach to perform a complete somersault? Judith wondered if her thoughts were capable of such coherence. Certainly it was possible for one's knees to be almost too weak to support one's person.

He had not changed, unless it was possible for him to look even harsher and more morose than he had looked eight years before. He was very tall, a good six inches taller than Andrew had been. He looked thin at first glance, but there was a breadth of chest and of shoulders that suggested fitness and strength. That had not changed with the years either, one glance told her.