Get Jacki’s Newsletter

Excerpt: A Christmas Code

Excerpt: A Christmas Code

Book 2: Code Breaker Series

Chapter One

Hot and breathless from performing the newly imported French dance steps of the quadrille, Gwyneth paused during the break in the music. She fanned her heated cheeks, attempting to cool herself. Lord Henley glanced down at her. His lips were tight, his eyes dark with need. She had seen the same look on the faces of many men, but never on the face of the only man who mattered.

She wanted to see the same burning desire and possessiveness in the eyes of her childhood infatuation as she knew blazed in her eyes when she looked at the impossible but dazzling Viscount Ashworth.

The gentleman, newly arrived, had barely glanced at her despite the new gown made especially to entice the hardheaded rake. Her friend and dress designer, Amelia, obsessed with the simplicity of Greek togas, had crisscrossed sky blue silk across Gwyneth’s ample chest with a dramatic décolletage. The back of the gown was draped in the same manner with a revealing V. It was a simple design, but sensual in the way the fabric clung to her body.

She felt alluring, and she was hopeful that tonight Ash would finally throw off all the restraints. She had felt his eyes on her back, knowing he watched her as she gaily danced the intricate pattern she had recently learned from her French dance master.

Lord Henley offered his arm as the quadrille ended. “May I take you to the refreshment table for a glass of punch? This new French dance is very demanding.”

“Thank you. I’m not thirsty. Can you please take me to my dear friend, Miss Bonnington?”

Lord Henley’s eyes clouded with emotion. Gwyneth couldn’t refuse the dance, but she needed to escape the gentleman before he embarrassed himself. She wanted to spare him the pain of rejection. After five marriage proposals this season, she had become somewhat of an expert in recognizing the signs of imminent declaration.

Lord Henley escorted Gwyneth to Amelia, who had also finished dancing and now stood alone.

“Thank you, sir, for the dance.” Gwyneth did a brief curtsy.

Lord Henley bowed. “It was my pleasure.” He hesitated, then sharply nodded his head. She didn’t want to be unkind, but there was no reason to pretend interest and encourage hope when there was none.

They watched Lord Henley circle to the other side of the room.

Amelia hid her face behind her fan, her bright eyes dancing in merriment. “Another stricken gentleman.”

“I believe he was about to ask if he could call on my brother tomorrow. I think I did an excellent job of extricating myself before he declared his feelings.”

“Lord Henley is quite a catch. He’s heir to a vast fortune. His interest can’t be limited only to your dowry.”

“Thank you. I’m glad it isn’t only money that makes me attractive.” Gwyneth liked to believe it was her wit, her sparkling eyes, but she knew her position as sister to an earl and heiress to a hefty inheritance gave her a definite in with the gentleman. And it was just like Amelia to tease her.

“Your following of swains has nothing to do with your luscious figure, your dramatic looks, or your amiable personality. My unique skill as a designer has brought all these gentleman to swoon at your feet.” Amelia snickered, which made Gwyneth laugh.

Tears were running down Gwyneth’s cheeks. “You do know how to level a woman’s confidence.”

The comment drove both to louder laughter.

Gwyneth noticed that Ash had turned in her direction. He smiled.

Lost in the merriment, she smiled back before she remembered her resolution not to appear as a puppy, waiting at his feet for a pat on the head. She could hide her feelings as well as he did. Forbidden by some unwritten gentleman’s code, Ash considered her off limits. She wasn’t sure if it was the age difference of eight years, his rakish past, or her position as his best friend’s younger sister.

He still kept her at a distance, maintaining that she was a mere youngster and they were simply childhood friends. She had spent the entire season trying to convince him otherwise, but she was tiring of the game.

Amelia hadn’t missed the little exchange between her and Ash. Amelia and she had become close since Henrietta, Amelia’s best friend, had married Gwyneth’s brother. They consoled each other over the loss of the couple who now had interest only in each other.

“There are rumors…”

Gwyneth didn’t like the way Amelia’s voice grew quiet and serious. Her heart thumped against her chest.

“Rumors?”

“Ash is seeking an alliance with Lady Charolois.”

Gwyneth tried to swallow away the pain that lodged in her throat. “Who is Lady Charolois?”

Amelia put her hand on Gwyneth’s arm. The gesture of friendship only heightened the sinking feeling.

“She is a widow. Gossip is that her husband was a French marquis who was guillotined. She recently arrived in London. I believe she is a relative of Sir Cornwell.”

“Is she here now?”

“Yes, she is in conversation with Lord Ramsay.”

A tingle of awareness lifted the fine hairs on Gwyneth’s neck. Amelia wasn’t privy to the fact that Sir Ramsay had been Head of British Intelligence. Lady Charolois might be part of the network of spies that worked for her brother who had assumed Sir Ramsay’s position.

Hope fluttered in her breast. Ash’s interest in Lady Charolois might not indicate a return to his rakish past, but a mission. She had deduced that Ash’s years away in France had been in service to the crown, not for wild dissipation as he allowed everyone to believe.

Lord Ramsay shifted his position. Gwyneth glimpsed a small, blond, well-endowed, woman. Her stomach churned at the lady’s radiant beauty.

“She looks British.”

Gwyneth and Amelia turned their heads to see Ash, resplendent in a black coat, his broad shoulders taxing his jacket, making his way toward Lady Charolois.

Amelia’s sympathetic look made it all worse. “I don’t want you to make the mistake, I did. Don’t waste the best years of your life waiting and dreaming of something that may never come to pass.” Amelia and she had become closer when they both realized they shared the same affliction—unrequited love. Amelia had never spoken this frankly or despondently. Her friend had been waiting for Henrietta’s brother, Michael, for years.

She turned and looked at Amelia whose face was tight with stifled emotions. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize how badly you felt.”

“I don’t think I knew what I was missing until I saw how happy Henrietta has become.”

“Yes, it’s the same with my brother. They’re disgustingly happy.”

Amelia snorted. “Look, the happy couple just arrived.”

Cord and Henrietta stood at the door of the ballroom. It was obvious that neither were aware of the intimate bond that enveloped them. Cord held Henrietta close to his body. His harsh countenance softened as he gazed down on her. Even from thirty feet away, she could see Henrietta’s face blush deep.

“As I said, disgustingly happy,” Gwyneth scoffed. “I’ve decided to go to the Edworth’s Christmas house party and you need to come with me. We need to get away from London, away from…”

Gwyneth didn’t want to admit that she was already dreading the holidays with the happy couple. Not that she didn’t adore her brother and his simply wonderful wife, but she was ready to have someone special to share her favorite holiday.

“My brothers will be there. You haven’t met my oldest brother. He has a way with the ladies, but he is a true gentleman. And rumor has it that Prinny might make an appearance,” Amelia said.

“Really? The Prince of Wales is going to spend Christmas away from his father?”

“As you know, there is no deep affection between them. The king doesn’t approve of his son’s lavish living.”

“But still it’s Christmas, a time for families to be together.” As she spoke, she realized that her family had changed—no longer just herself, Cord and Aunt Euphemia.

She had always loved the holiday and romanticized the season as a time of magic and hope. Because of the loss of her oldest brother to a tragic riding accident, her parents made a big effort to create a special holiday for her, but there was always a ghost of sadness in the household. Though she had wonderful memories because Cord always came home to share them with her.

She had hoped to spend the holiday in Ash’s arms, planning their future. Talk about fantasies. It was time to take decisive steps toward her own future and stop waiting on the dashing gentleman who had been a young girl’s fantasy. It was time to take control of her life.

Ignoring the logical conclusions of her brain, she again led with her heart’s true desire. “Let’s join Sir Ramsay. I haven’t seen him in an age.”

“You want to join Ash and Lady Charolois?” Amelia’s voice sounded a bit strangled.

“No, I want to visit with Sir Ramsay. He’s a longtime family friend. I’m happy to greet this new lady and offer my friendship. I think that she might be in need of friends.” Gwyneth marched toward the group. She knew her shoulders were pulled back, her chin thrust forward. She had the look of determination that told those who knew her best to tread cautiously.

“You aren’t going to do anything rash? Cause a scene?” Amelia whispered behind her fan.

“Me? Cause a scene? I’m too mature of a woman for such childish displays.” She needed to see Ash’s reaction to the lady before she relinquished her illusions about him—before she decided whether to attend a Christmas party far away from him.

Ash had purposefully positioned himself with his back to her so she couldn’t see him work his appealing charm and flash his mischievous, crooked smile at the lady. Sir Ramsay was the first to see the ladies approaching. His taut, weathered face softened into a warm greeting.

“How lovely to greet my favorite neighbor. Lady Gwyneth and Miss Amelia. Well met.”

Ash turned around sharply when he heard her name. His eyes flared and then his lips pulled back in an outraged glower as he looked down at Amelia’s creation and her barely covered chest. His reaction made her heart palpitate. She felt his whole body tighten next to her, heard the barely audible hitch in his breath.

A warm feeling spread through Gwyneth as she observed Ash’s restrained reaction to her new gown. He wasn’t interested in Lady Charolois after all.

His only response to her was a curt nod of his head. “Lady Gwyneth and Miss Amelia.”

Sir Ramsay turned toward her and Amelia and asked, “Have you had the pleasure of meeting Lady Charolois?”

“We haven’t had the…pleasure…” Gwyneth stared at Ash, her chin raised in defiance of making the lady’s acquaintance.

Ash’s eyes narrowed with suspicion.

She had trouble not smiling. Oh, he wasn’t interested in the other lady.

All three ladies curtsied. The blond beauty was like one of the woodland sprites. She had an ethereal quality that might fool many men, but Gwyneth hadn’t missed the lady’s calculating glance as she and Amelia approached.

Sir Ramsay broke the strained silence. “We were just discussing our plans for the Christmas season.”

“Are you staying in town for the holidays, Lady Charolois?” Gwyneth asked.

Ash cleared his throat.

The nervous flicker of the lady’s round blue eyes might have hoodwinked Britain’s top agents, but Gwyneth recognized when a woman had plans. And like the calculating lady, Gwyneth had her own schemes.

“I’m attending Lord Edworth’s country party. I’ve no family and find London’s smog so weary for the holidays.” Her French accent lilted her husky voice, making her sound exotic and enticing.

“That is an amazing coincidence. Amelia and I were just discussing our plans to attend the same party.”

“What?” Ash asked in a rude manner “Cord is allowing you to spend the holidays away from your family?”

“I haven’t discussed my holiday plans with Cord. Amelia and I’ve decided we needed to break away from our familiar childhood merriments, to forge new ways of celebrating. Isn’t that so, Amelia?” Gwyneth enjoyed watching Ash’s grey eyes darken and the pulsing beat in his jaw thicken.

Amelia had been watching the by-plays, eyes wide with surprise. She fluttered her fan in front of her face.

“Also, we’ve decided like you, Lady Charolois, that the season grows tiresome and we need a change in scene.” Gwyneth waved with her hands toward the dance floor. “I mean in the weather.”

Gwyneth could feel Ash’s body thrumming next to hers, his heat wrapping around her. She was having a grand time baiting the gentleman. He thought he could ignore her. Fiddlesticks to that. And now, it was time to do a bit of her own spying. “We’ve heard that the Prince of Wales will be attending. Will you be retiring to your estate, Sir Ramsay, or will you venture to Bath and the house party?”

Sir Ramsay harrumphed and cleared his throat. “I won’t be, but Ash is considering attending.” Poor Ramsay, as his aunt affectionately called him, looked confounded. Nothing like shaking up Britain’s top intelligence agent.

Ash’s face registered no outward reaction. The man was definitely a very skilled spy since anyone not thoroughly acquainted with him would be unable to glean that Viscount Ashworth was livid, stroking mad. The little tic above his right eye pulsed and his usual cool grey eyes smoldered with hidden fury.

The petite French lady clapped her hands in feigned delight, or maybe not feigned, since who could resist Ash, the blond Adonis? His golden curls framed his chiseled countenance and bright eyes. Unlike other gentleman, he didn’t seem to care greatly about his appearance. His hair was brushed back from his face in a haphazard way, as if he had just risen from bed and run his fingers through his hair.

The thought of Ash and a bed sent a wave of pleasurable sensations through Gwyneth’s body.

* * *

Ash watched Gwyneth with a speculative regard. He missed nothing. Her dark eyes widened and her lips parted as if in excitement. His entire body tightened in response. He wanted to kiss those lips. Oh, the things he wanted to do to her, and those luscious lips were the least of it.

“Lord Ashworth?”

He realized everyone was waiting for his response. “I haven’t made any plans yet, but with all these lovely ladies attending, this party must not to be missed.” Ash’s voice had taken on a seductive tenor.

“Oh, nicely said, Lord Ashworth,” the little lady chirped.

He bowed his head to the lady. “Lady Charolois, is your dance card full or may I have the pleas…the honor of one of tonight’s dances?”

Gwyneth had to bite on the side of her mouth to keep from laughing out loud when she caught Ash’s eye as he was about to say the word “pleasure” and changed to “honor.”

“That would be delightful, my lord.” The lady’s voice was breathless and seductive.

Gwyneth wanted to say aloud, “Men really don’t fall for winded coyness, do they?”

Lady Charolois’ calculated smile and charms seemed to be working. Ash’s steely grey eyes had warmed and he had the gall to bestow upon the lady the smile Gwyneth believed should only be reserved for her—the one that made him look young and carefree, like the youth she had fallen in love with at the ripe age of ten years.

“If you’ll excuse us. I’ve promised this dance to Lady Gwyneth.” Ash gripped her arm tightly as he led her toward the dance floor.

“You didn’t give me time to say good night to your newest paramour. Really, Ash, she looks a bit old for you.”

* * *

Ash stopped at the edge of the dance floor and looked into Gwyneth’s unfathomable eyes. She had the same mischievous look she had in childhood, when she would follow Cord and him and think she had bested them in some prank. But this wasn’t some childish game. This was dangerous.

“You have no idea what you’re meddling in. Walk with me. I need to speak with you.”

She bit down on her lower lip, bringing attention to the warm, moist, pink surface. Hot desire flared through his body again at the irresistible temptation she presented. He couldn’t get sidetracked when he had a mission, a serious mission. The minx wet her plump lower lip with her tongue. Was she doing this to addle him?

“I’m not meddling. I wanted to meet the lady who has attracted your notice. We’re old family friends. I don’t think the lady could misconstrue my interest.”

“Gwyneth.” He tried to sound authoritative, but instead his voice came out plaintive.

He led her out to a darkened corner on the balcony. He needed to stop her interference in his mission while not drawing attention to their relationship. He didn’t want his enemies to know of his regard for her.

He couldn’t let her get close to these people. He hated what he needed to do, but it was for her safety. He couldn’t let her be involved. Once he had broken the ring of spies, he’d make it up to her. She understood how he felt about her. Keenly observant, Gwyneth knew him better than anyone.

She stepped closer to him, her enticing body wrapped as a present in soft, seductive blue silk, ready for him to open. His breathing deepened to aggressive surges. He didn’t dare look down at her creamy white breasts or he might not be responsible for what happened next.

“Ash?”

The way she said his name in a throaty, seductive voice sent a bolt of desire straight up his spine. Her black, slanted eyes were wide and mysterious, staring into his. She had no idea how potent an effect that look precipitated. Or maybe she did.

He was so damn tired of this spy business, always postponing his needs for those of the country. If he gave her any hint of his purpose in attending the country party, she’d be dogging his footsteps, trying to prove she could help him. He didn’t want her as a spy. He knew the toll the subterfuge and lies took on a person.

“You must celebrate Christmas with Cord and your aunt. The country party is not for the likes of you. The society who attend Prinny’s parties are.”

“Then you’re not going?” She scrutinized him with those innocent eyes.

“I’m going, but you’re not. The party is for older, experienced women, which you are not.”

“But that is exactly why I’ve decided to go. I might not be able to advance my age, but I can acquire experience.” She leaned closer and whispered tauntingly, “I’m so weary of being kissed by honorable gentlemen.”

Every muscle in his body constricted in reaction. “Who has been kissing you?” He actually growled the words then grabbed her shoulders. “And do not tell me that Henley is involved. He’s a rake of the first order.”

She batted her long, dark lashes at him. “Takes one to know one.”

She was soft, warm, and pliant. He wanted to run his hands along her silky skin.

“He’s pledged that he was done with his wildness. He said he’d give up all women if I’d consent…”

Ash couldn’t suppress the surge of pure masculine possessiveness and anger. Henley wouldn’t be pursuing Cord’s innocent sister unless he was seriously interested. He pulled her closer, his hands tightening on her shoulders. “You let him kiss you?”

A tiny crack had begun to erode his confidence. He assumed that Gwyneth would be his when he could finally break away from the damn spy business.

When she tried to pull away, he wrapped his arms around her, inhaling deeply the scent of wildflowers, outdoors, and the special scent of Gwyneth. He wanted her against him, to feel her woman’s softness melting around him.

“I would never kiss and tell—that would be unladylike. I’ve had five marriage proposals this season. You can’t expect a girl not to explore whether she wants the gentleman.”

There it was again—that innocent look. How she played him, like the violinist playing a sonata.

“I won’t be distracted by the change in topics. We were discussing why you must not attend the Christmas party.” As always in interacting with her, he felt light and young. She made him smile, the minx.

“Are you distracted by me?” She fingered the lapel of his jacket. For a country miss, she was an exotic temptress, more so than any highly paid courtesan.

He stopped her hand from wandering by closing his hand over hers. “Gwyneth, I forbid you to go to the party.”

She pulled her hand away. “I don’t need your permission to go to the party.”

“Then I’m going to speak to Cord about your plans.”

“You’ve no right to interfere with my holiday plans.” A tendril of her thick black hair hung across her right eye. With her strong chin and delectable chest thrust forward, she looked like a pagan queen ready for battle.

“I’ve every right, and you know it.” He pulled her hard against him and took her lips in a deliberate, demanding way. He held her tightly as his tongue darted in and out of her warm moisture. Once he felt her soften against him, he lightened the pressure of his lips and ran his tongue along the edge of her lower lip. “So sweet.” And so innocent. What was he doing? He had to get back to the ballroom and he didn’t want to think about her reaction to his public pursuit of Lady Charolois.

She ran her hand through his hair, down his neck. “Oh, Ash.” She crushed her voluptuous curves closer. “Our first real kiss.” Her voice was filled with wonder.

Perhaps he had made their first kiss too carnal, but she had pushed him. She was always pushing him, but clearly they both liked the tantalizing result.

“I must get you back to your aunt. She’ll have my hide if she knew we were out on the balcony alone.”

“Aunt Euphemia is playing cards. She won’t mind.”

“Oh, I think she’ll mind a great deal if I ruin your reputation. And Cord…”

“I wouldn’t mind…” There was the young girl he knew—always testing the limits. And she was a challenging provocation—the way she posed with dewy lips, the moonlight dancing across her creamy skin.

He placed her hand on his arm. He avoided looking at her since, if he did, he’d need to kiss her again, and then they would never stop. He needed to get back to his goal in attending this ball. He was glad he and Gwyneth had come to an amiable agreement. He’d always enjoy the way they settled their differences.