Lady Gaia Evans and Lord Zachariah Radburn, Marquess Lydell first met last Christmas Eve after finding shelter from a blizzard. The most unusual part of this introduction was that it was within a brothel.
Conversation into the night led to the first buds of friendship as not only their hearts, but also their souls, took notice.
With the promise of a dance when the Season began, the two went their separate ways. Except, Lady Gaia never saw Lydell again. As London left much to be desired, Gaia slowly withdrew from the throng until she found her place among the wallflowers.
Lord Lydell did attempt to attend the Season with the one hope of courting Lady Gaia. However, the American with a suspect family history was not made welcome. Therefore, Lydell left London and put his dreams, hopes, and desires for Lady Gaia away.
That is, until they encounter the other once again at Christmastime. Will their hearts and souls take notice again or will a past keep them apart?
Bath, England, December 1815
“You will be on your best behavior for the next fortnight,” Lady Dargate ordered her only son.
Lady Gaia Evans glanced over at her older brother, Angelo, the Earl of Bolton and smirked.
“I always behave, Mother,” he assured her with false sincerity.
It was all Gaia could do not to snort.
“You’ve not behaved since you were on leading strings,” their mother grumbled. “As for you, Gaia, perhaps you should misbehave for a change.”
At that, Gaia gasped.
“You are too quiet…unassuming and people aren’t even aware when you are about. You’ll never get noticed if you don’t do something…well…noticeable.”
“Such is the way of wallflowers,” her brother goaded.
“At least my reputation is sterling, whereas yours leaves much to be desired,” she argued.
Angelo simply grinned, not the least bit ashamed that he was considered a notorious rake, rogue and all-around scoundrel, breaking hearts in his wake. Yet, he insisted he behaves. Gaia nearly snorted again.
“Quit bickering,” their mother ordered. “Gaia, you will step out from the shadows and enjoy spending time with our guests, and more importantly, you will not be a wallflower at the Christmas Eve ball.”
Instead of spending Christmas at Sessile Court, her father’s ancestral estate in Kent, they’d traveled to Bath, where her brother lived in the home Father had purchased years ago in the Royal Crescent. Mother had begged him to do so as she’d been quite taken with the architecture. It was there that Gaia and her family spent much of their time whenever she and her mother traveled from Florence to England. Rarely did her family remain at Sessile Court for any length of time because it was not where her mother preferred. However, since they could no longer return to Italy, she and her mother had spent more time in Kent than she ever had in the twenty previous years of visiting and this was the first they’d visited Bath in over a year.
“Angelo, you will also remain at home, and not off to…” Her mother glanced to Gaia. “You know.”
“That is hardly fair,” he complained. “Gaia spent last Christmas Eve in a brothel, yet I cannot this year.”
“Those were extenuating circumstances,” her mother ground out.
Gaia almost wished she could spend this Christmas Eve as she had the last.
An odd snowstorm, a blizzard actually, had stranded them in Canterbury and she and her mother had been forced to take shelter in a brothel. It had been an enjoyable evening, despite the circumstances. They weren’t the only travelers in the unusual establishment since every inn had already been filled to capacity. Several travelers, who were deemed the most respectable in Society, shared laughter, spirits, and stories with females usually looked down upon for being lightskirts.
There she had also met Lord Zachariah Radburn, the Marquess of Lydell, and his young ward. Gaia had hoped that they’d meet again once the Season began in London, but it was not to be.
His absence had been noted, no matter how silly it may have been. He had asked her to save him a waltz and she looked forward to the moment when she spied him across a ballroom. But she never did and had to accept that the request had only been a well-meaning promise because of an evening shared. It was also likely he’d forgotten her in the weeks that followed, even though she’d not forgotten him.
Unfortunately, this Christmas would be uneventful in comparison.
“Family will arrive a few days before Christmas. However, I have issued invitations to others to join us for tea in the days leading up to the ball and I expect Gaia to engage in conversation with those guests,” her mother continued to instruct. “As for you, Angelo, you will be present within this household doing the same.”
He slumped in his seat as if he were a child and his favorite toy had just been taken away. “Will Father’s siblings and their families be residing here?”
“Your Aunt Anne and Colonel Montgomery have made arrangements to lease a home currently unoccupied only a few doors away. Audrey and her husband and child will stay with them,” their mother answered. “Aunt Mary and Lord Hartley, and their children will stay here.”
Mother made it sound like they were young. Bethany, the eldest was two years older than Gaia and had not married yet, nor was she in a hurry to do so. Meredith and Gaia were the same age and at one time had been close, but that had been when they were children. The middle child, and only son, was Percy.
“How many people are we expecting at the ball?” Angelo asked.
When it had just been her aunts and their families for Christmas, Gaia had not been concerned. But her mother was inviting the residents of Bath into their home.
“For the ball, not above three dozen guests, outside of our family.”
Gaia’s stomach tightened at the very idea.
“It is the intention of your father and I to make certain that you meet respectable women, Angelo. You’ve a duty and you have been shirking it.”
Hopefully her parents would be more concerned with Angelo finally marrying and leave her be.
“This past Season was a failure, and my daughter will not be known as a wallflower.” Her mother blew out a sigh and leaned back. “I don’t even know what came over you, Gaia. In Italy you never shied away from gatherings, or the people present, but in England, well, you might as well not have even been present.”
Gaia had explained but was dismissed for being too cautious and suspicious.
“The reason your father and I have planned smaller gatherings is because this will allow you to meet everyone beforehand so maybe, finally, you will participate.”
Perhaps her mother did understand, though it was more likely she didn’t wish for Gaia to have the excuse that the gentlemen were strangers whom she knew nothing about. “Yes, Mother,” Gaia acknowledged so that her mother didn’t harp further on what was expected and what a disappointment Gaia had been.
“If that is all,” Angelo stood. “I do need to prepare for this evening.”
Her mother frowned.
“If I am to be sequestered here for a fortnight, I am going to enjoy myself tonight.”
“Where are you going?” her mother demanded as Angelo sauntered from the room.
“I have a ball to attend.”
He then disappeared and Gaia could hear him rushing up the stairs.
“Ball? What ball?” her mother asked. “We received no invitation.”
“It would have been rather awkward had we,” Gaia laughed. “It is the annual Courtesan Christmas Ball.” Even though Gaia had never been married, and was only one and twenty years, her mother hadn’t sheltered her from what occurred in privacy between a man and a woman. Her mother had found it perfectly acceptable for bachelors to have mistresses, lovers and visit brothels, but only until they married. This was probably why Gaia hadn’t been nearly as shocked to be sitting in what was considered a house of ill-repute last year. Of course, even though Gaia may have the knowledge, she lacked all experience because unlike her son, Gaia’s mother believed a woman should remain chaste until she wed.
Gaia used to believe that such rules were terribly unfair to the female. However, as she had not met anyone with whom she wished to share intimacies, she had decided that perhaps men were not as discerning as women, or perhaps their needs were simply greater.
Her mother shook her head. “I shouldn’t be surprised that Angelo is attending.” Her mother blew out a sigh. “Such behavior is normal for a younger man. However, he is now eight and twenty and should be looking for a wife, not his next mistress.”
“In order to assist in seeing my brother marry, I will pay close attention to the available misses and ladies who call on us. I’m certain I will find his perfect bride,” Gaia offered. If she could keep her parents focused on seeing Angelo wed, then they would not worry themselves about her.
“So long as you also participate in meeting available gentlemen.”
“I don’t want an English husband,” she reminded her mother. “I want an Italian gentleman.”
“We cannot return to Florence so unless you find an Italian gentleman in England, it is unlikely that you will wed one.”
The villa where they’d once lived had belonged to Gaia’s grandfather, but when he passed on eight months ago, a cousin inherited and wrote to Gaia’s mother to inform her that she would need to find other lodgings if she and her daughter wished to return to Italy. The letter had arrived with crates of their belongings. He had never approved of Gaia and her mother residing in Florence while Father and Angelo lived in England. This was his way of forcing Mother to live with her husband.
“I never did like that cousin,” Gaia grumbled.
“Be that as it may, I will see your brother reformed so that he can find a respectable bride. And you will not hide because your father and I expect you to make a match as well.”
Gaia said nothing as it would do little good to argue. However, she had no intention of allowing a match to be made for her. If she could not feel love and passion for a gentleman, then she refused to wed.
Zachariah Radburn, Marquess of Lydell, had attempted a London Season only because he had hoped to see Lady Gaia once again. However, within a sennight, the chill of the reception he received had him returning to Bath.
It was likely he’d not be welcomed in Society for a few more years. Apparently, the ton had long memories and still recalled how his cousin had terrorized women, though they forgot that Zachariah hadn’t even lived in England at the time. He was simply guilty by association, having inherited his cousin’s title.
Not that it mattered all that much to Zachariah, but it would one day. Hopefully, memories would fade over the next sixteen years, by the time Alice, his cousin’s daughter, had her first Season.
Though the cool reception could also have been because he was an American, but as Zachariah had no control over what his cousin had done, nor where he’d been born, he made no apologies.
It was not much better in Bath, where the estate he’d inherited was located, but he had made a few friends. One of those being the Earl of Bolton, who didn’t care what anyone thought, nor judged a person on relations.
It was also Bolton who had secured Zachariah an invitation to the Courtesan Christmas Ball. His friend had been more scandalized by the fact that Zachariah had been in England for more than a year and hadn’t taken a lover than anything the former Lydell may have done.
Zachariah hadn’t meant to confess he’d gone so long without a woman, but he and Bolton had been deep in their cups one evening and Zachariah had asked his opinions of the brothels and women within.
“It’s not a brothel you need, my friend, but a mistress,” Bolton had insisted.
A mistress had been Zachariah’s preference, as it had been in America, but he wasn’t certain how to go about meeting one in England when he was nearly shunned by Society.
Thus, the invitation to the ball.
He lifted the glass of brandy to his lips and studied the occupants in the room. The women with a red bow around their neck were in search of a protector. Those without, were already claimed.
Zachariah hadn’t been certain what to expect this evening, but other than bodices that were cut daringly low, one would think they were attending any other Society ball.
“Do you see anyone you like?” Bolton asked with a grin.
“Many,” Zachariah admitted. Though if he selected someone, it would be based on more than appearance. While he may wish for a mistress for intimacy, he also sought someone he could have a conversation with. Someone that he liked to be with, not just enjoy bedding. Though he wasn’t certain if Bolton would understand, even if Zachariah tried to explain. His former mistresses had also been nearly friends, and he missed the companionship of simply talking and sipping wine before retiring to the bedchamber.
“Darling, are you going to dance with me this evening?” a blonde woman approached and practically pressed herself against Bolton and pouted. “Especially since you are going to abandon me for a fortnight, and even on Christmas.”
Zachariah hated it when women attempted manipulation to get their way.
“I promise to spend much of the evening with you, Amante. I must first assist my friend so that he does not make a poor choice.”
The woman frowned and looked about the room. “Yes, unfortunately there are a few of those.” Then she turned back to Bolton and traced a line down his cheek with the tip of her finger. “Do not be too long.”
Bolton watched as she strolled away. “Amante?”
“Italian for lover,” Bolton answered.
Italy reminded him of Lady Gaia, not that she’d been forgotten. The coming Christmas Eve would be spent much different than the last as he would likely spend it quietly at home, and unfortunately alone.
“Why won’t you see your mistress for a fortnight?”
“My parents and sister have come to Bath, and they have planned several entertainments. I am to remain home and be respectable.” He laughed. “I’ll secure an invitation for you to attend the ball, though it will likely be dull.”
While Zachariah would like to accept, he didn’t want to suffer through another ball where he was practically ostracized.
“I didn’t know that you had a sister.” In fact, Bolton barely mentioned parents and with that, Zachariah realized that he knew little of his friend’s background.
“She is seven years younger than me,” Bolton answered. “Had you attended the Season last spring you may have met her, but you left before it was truly underway.”
Bolton knew Zachariah’s reasons, though insisted he should have stayed until everyone had arrived, but Zachariah had had enough of the judgement from the ones who were there.