Lord Swainsbury’s face darkened and his mouth narrowed with disapproval.

 

Lord Ravens was the only one with a sense of humor. He deduced almost immediately that Ellen was baiting her mother to repay her for sending her brother to watch over her.

 

“Naturally, I refused,” she blithely added, which appeased her mother. Lord Swainsbury, on the other hand, was not persuaded. It was time to change the subject. “Lord Ravens, will you be joining in on our family celebrations? Mama predicts our Twelfth Night masquerade ball will be remembered for years to come.”

 

Lord Ravens acknowledged her deliberate attempt to sway the conversation with a quick grin. “I was expressing my regrets to your lovely mother. I received word that my presence is required at my northern estate, and I will be leaving at dawn.”

 

“How disappointing! Will you be gone long?” she inquired out of polite concern.

 

“Worried over losing one of your suitors?”

 

Ellen gasped in disbelief. Lord Swainsbury’s bland delivery had been so careless that she had not felt the sting for several seconds. “Not at all! Lord Ravens is not one of my so-called suitors.” She sounded so appalled at the notion that she felt the need to apologize. “No offense.”

 

Lord Ravens placed his hand over his heart. “None taken, my dear lady. I am, after all, an utter scoundrel. I have no redeeming value. Do you not agree, Lady Netherley?”

 

“Indeed,” her mother heartily concurred. “You would be a terrible husband for our Ellen.”

 

Lord Swainsbury sat rigidly in his chair. Ellen was tempted to demand an explanation for his outlandish behavior. It was not her fault that her father was determined to see her married. He had no right to judge her.

 

Lord Ravens seemed immune to the growing tension between her and the earl. “I do not leave London without a few regrets. Take Swainsbury, for example. Alone during Christmastide without friend or family.”

 

“Think nothing of it,” Lord Swainsbury muttered, his expression silently informing his friend to hold his tongue.

 

“Never fear, Ravens, I will not allow your friend to sit alone in a hotel when I can do something about it. Lord Swainsbury will stay with us at Netherley House.”

 

Lord Ravens’s eyes gleamed with approval. “An excellent and most generous offer, my lady.”

 

Ellen’s lips parted at her mother’s announcement. “What? Mama, I do not think . . .” She cast a wary glance at the man seated next to her.

 

Lord Swainsbury was shaking his head. “I do not wish to intrude.”

 

“Nonsense,” her mother said, dismissing his protest. “The staff is already preparing for overnight guests. What’s one more?”

 

“And Father?” Ellen pressed. “What do you think he will have to say about all of this?”

 

“Nothing at all. Lord Swainsbury will not be the sole bachelor residing under our roof, and Lord Netherley is an indulgent husband.” Leaning forward, she confided to the gentlemen, “He spoils me dreadfully.”

 

Ellen had little choice but to surrender gracefully.

 

 

 

Copyright © September 2014. Excerpt from ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS SCANDAL by Alexandra Hawkins. Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.

Excerpt!

“I pray you are behaving yourself, Mama.” To take the sting out of her gentle scolding, she leaned down and kissed the elderly woman’s cheek. Ellen straightened. “Good evening, Lord Ravens.” Her gaze switched to Lord Swainsbury. Unknowingly, her voice softened. “So we meet again, my lord.”

 

“Please, join us.” Lord Swainsbury stepped aside and offered his seat next to her mother. “You must be weary after Pountney’s long farewell.”

 

Lord Ravens snorted, but he swiftly bridled his amusement at his friend’s not-so-subtle insult. He sat down, and the earl mirrored his actions by selecting the chair closest to Ellen.

 

“What’s this about Lord Pountney?” Lady Netherley asked. “He’s such a sweet and attentive young man.”

 

Was the earl implying that she had slipped away in order to kiss Lord Pountney? “The viscount had no time for prolonged farewells,” Ellen said, her explanation directed at Lord Swainsbury. “I was detained by my brother and Frost in the library.”

 

His right brow lifted at the name. “Another suitor?”

 

“No, another annoying, overprotective brother,” she said, her tone revealing her fondness for the gentleman. “You probably have met his wife, Lady Chillingsworth.”

 

“Did something happen with Lord Pountney?” Lady Netherley inquired, sounding concerned. “And why on earth would Christopher and Frost escort you to the library when I distinctly told them to . . .”

 

“Told them what, Mama?” Ellen asked, when her mother did not finish her sentence. “Well, there is nothing to worry about. They wanted to ply me with brandy.”

 

“They did what?” exclaimed her mother.