The Dance Before Christmas
Two weeks before Christmas
Wesley Grant studied the wall of brass plaques engraved with the names of illustrious members of the Explorers Club who had perished through the years. The memorial wall greeted all who entered through the main door of the venerable club. It was an impressive display obviously designed to give new arrivals to the hallowed halls of the Explorers Club a not too subtle sense of the prestigious nature of the club’s membership as well as honor those who had gone before. His father would have loved this.
“Good evening,” a female voice said beside him.
Wes turned. A pretty young woman, no taller than his shoulders, stared up at him. Dark curls pinned with pearls tumbled down her back. Her chin was slightly pointed, her lips decidedly lush and her green eyes fascinating even if the expression they held was vaguely annoyed. He smiled down at her. “Good evening.”
“Good. I hoped it was you.” Relief rang in her voice. “I couldn’t be certain until I heard your accent. Aunt Lillian described you but she’s not good at that sort of thing and simply said you were tall, dark-haired and handsome.” Her gaze flicked over him in an assessing manner. “But then I suppose most actors are handsome aren’t they?”
“I have no idea,” he said cautiously. What on earth was she talking about?
“It scarcely matters I suppose.” She waved off his question. “You’re late, you know.”
“Am I?” As he was using his uncle’s invitation to the Explorers Club Christmas Ball, Uncle Nigel had suggested it would be best to arrive after the first onslaught of guests. He’d said those checking invitations were always a bit lax as the evening grew later.
She glanced around, as if to see if anyone was watching, then took Wes’s arm and steered him down the corridor. “I was afraid you might not be coming at all.”
“I think you have me confused—”
She pulled up short and stared at him. “She did pay you didn’t she?”
“Pay me?” He frowned. “Who?”
“My aunt? Lady Farstead? The woman who hired you?”
“Ah yes, now I remember.” He didn’t, of course, but he was far too intrigued to stop now.
“If she didn’t pay you, we shall have to discuss payment, but it cannot be made until a later date. I hope you will agree to trust me in that regard. If not, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave. I have no funds with me tonight.” She grimaced. “But I do hope you’ll stay. I am rather desperate.”
There were all sort of things Wes could have—and probably should have—said at this moment. Prime among them that she had made a mistake, he wasn’t who she thought he was, and he had no idea what she was talking about. Still, she was very pretty and obviously distressed. What kind of a man would he be if he didn’t come to her rescue? Besides, she’d aroused his curiosity and he’d surely regret not finding out what she was up to. “Of course, I trust you Miss…I’m sorry I don’t recall your name.”
“Knowing my aunt, she forgot to tell you.” She shook her head in exasperation and continued pulling him down the corridor. “My aunt is a lovely woman and is brilliant when it comes to any kind of scheme. She and I came up with this idea only a few days ago, and the planning has been rather rushed, but we really have no time to waste. Unfortunately, she pays no attention whatsoever to details she deems unnecessary. Although I would have thought my name was necessary.”
“She said something about maintaining anonymity,” he said smoothly.
“An excellent idea but that won’t be at all possible.” She paused in front of tall double doors, glanced up and down the corridor, then pulled open a door and waved him in. “I’m Miss Snelling. Anabel Snelling.”
He nearly tripped stepping over the threshold. “Then your father is—”
“Sir Archibald Snelling,” she said and closed the doors behind them.
Sir Archibald Snelling was one of the men Wes had traveled to London to see. This was either the greatest stroke of luck imaginable or a disaster in the making. Probably the later. It usually was when a beautiful woman was involved, at least in his experience.
They were in a large room, apparently a library. Tables designed for work or study ran in precise rows. The walls were filled with shelves crammed with books. Flames flickered in the closest pair of gas sconces but the rest of the room faded into the shadows. One had the strangest impression that this library stretched on into infinity.
“Your accent is excellent by the way.”
“Thank you.” He paused. “So is yours.”
“I don’t have an accent.” She huffed. “This is London and I am English. I speak precisely the same way everyone here does so I am not the one with an accent.” Her brows drew together. “Are you really American?”
“I really am.”
“Well then it’s much easier to pretend to be one isn’t it?”
“Yes, as I’m not pretending.”
“Aunt Lillian said she knew of an actor who played American roles but she wasn’t entirely sure if he—or rather you—was American or not.”
An actor? She thought he was an actor? He bit back a smile. This just got more and more interesting. “Your aunt, Lady Farfetched—”
“Sorry. She wasn’t entirely clear on exactly what role I’m supposed to play.”
“To be expected I suppose.” She heaved a frustrated sigh. “It’s really very simple. From now until the day after Christmas you’re to play my suitor. The one I hope to marry.”
He stared. “Why?”
“Because I need to avoid marriage to someone else.” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose I should tell you everything.”
“One does like to know all the nuances of a particular role if one hopes to be convincing.”
“That makes sense.” She wrung her hands together. “In a few months, I’ll be twenty-one years old. My father is convinced if I’m not wed by then I’ll never marry.”
“I wouldn’t think you’d have any problem finding a husband.”
“If all I wanted in life was a husband, any old husband, I wouldn’t. I have had offers but I want more.”
“So you don’t want to marry.”
“Don’t be absurd.” She scoffed. “Of course I want to marry. I have no idea what I would do with my life if I didn’t marry. But I have no intention of marrying simply for the sake of being wed. The world is full of possibilities for men but few for women. I want my life to be an adventure.” She met his gaze directly. “I firmly believe love is an adventure and that’s what I want. Heart fluttering, birds singing, romantic novel love. I will settle for nothing less.”
He considered her thoughtfully. “And this man you wish to avoid marriage to, you don’t love him?”
“Not even the tiniest bit. Oh, I might have the kind of affection for him one feels for a brother. And I do like him. Douglas Reed is a very likable man. I’ve known him most of my life. His father and mine have always been good friends and they have always hoped for a match between their children. As I have failed to wed up to this point, Father has been pushing Douglas in my direction.” She paced absently in front of him. “Douglas is a fine man and I am fond of him, but I have no desire to spend the rest of my life with someone I am merely fond of.” She paused and looked at him. “Do you understand?”
He nodded. “You want mad, passionate love not fond affection. You want adventure.”
“Exactly.” She resumed pacing. “Father’s efforts toward a match with Douglas have increased as Douglas was recently offered a prestigious post in India. His position, as well as his future prospects, would be greatly enhanced if he was married. He is to leave for India the day after Christmas. I’m sure he intends to ask me to marry at any moment. I suspect he already has Father’s blessing. I’m fairly certain he wants to announce our betrothal at our Christmas Eve ball and possibly has plans for a Christmas day wedding.”
“Would your father really do that?”
“I don’t know but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I would much prefer not to take that chance.”
“Don’t misunderstand me, Mr—” Again she stopped. “I don’t know your name although I suppose it really doesn’t matter as I won’t be addressing you by your real name anyway.”
“Wesley Grant.” He nodded a bow. “Delightful to meet you, Miss Snelling.”
“Anabel. You should call me Anabel if we are to be believed.” She frowned. “Where was I?”
“You didn’t want me to misunderstand something.”
“Ah yes.” She thought for a moment. “My father cares for me and would never want me to be unhappy. He simply feels the road to happiness for a woman lies with marriage. In that, I don’t entirely disagree but . . .” She shrugged in an appealingly helpless way.
He nodded. “But you want more.”
“I do.” She set her chin in a stubborn manner. “In spite of my age, I will settle for nothing less. Nor will I allow my younger sisters to do so. What kind of an example would I be if I married just because of age to a man I merely liked?” She met his gaze firmly. “I assure you, Mr. Grant, I do want to marry but no woman should be made to marry if she doesn’t wish to.”
“I see.” He chose his words carefully. “But when Reed proposes why don’t you just say no?”
“Because I’m the worst sort of coward.” She heaved a heartfelt sigh. “I would much prefer to avoid any unpleasantness. And I have no desire to hurt Douglas. I fear he likes me far more than I like him. But even if all he feels for me is the same sort of friendly affection I feel for him, I would think it would be most disheartening to offer for someone’s hand only to have that offer rejected. You’re a man. What do you think?”
“I’ve never been in that situation but I think you’re probably right.”
“Then you can see why I wish to avoid that altogether by having an acceptable new suitor who is clearly as head over heels for me as I am for him. At least until after Christmas,” she added quickly.
“And that suitor would be me.” There were obviously any number of things that could go wrong with this plan but it wasn’t his plan. He was merely to play a role. He wasn’t entirely sure when he had decided to go along with her scheme, but if Wesley Grant couldn’t manage a meeting with Sir Archibald perhaps his daughter’s suitor could. Besides, any woman who was smart enough to come up with a scheme like this and brave enough to carry it through was worth further acquaintance. Anabel Snelling was definitely as clever as she was pretty, if a bit devious. He liked that.
“Yes, well, not exactly you. Father would never approve of an actorcalling on me.” She studied him for a moment. “When you were perusing the names of fallen Explorer Club members did you notice one for Reginald Everheart?”
“Not that I recall.”
“He was a very famous American explorer. No doubt you’ve heard of him?”
“I’m afraid not.” Surely she was mistaken as to this Everheart’s fame. His father had known everything there was to know about modern explorers and adventurers and had passed that interest onto his son. Wes had always suspected his father had secretly desired to join their ranks. While Wes too admired those men who sallied forth into the unknown, he’d never had any such longing. His passion lay in the excitement of innovation and development and puzzles of the mind. But his fondness for endeavors of exploration and his passion for progress and new inventions were exactly what had led him to England.
She stared in disbelief. “Goodness, Mr. Grant, everyone here knows the name of Reginald Everheart.”
“You know how the theater is. We do tend to live in our own fictional world.” No, he was sure he had never heard of Reginald Everheart before. He would certainly remember that name.
“It can’t be helped I suppose.” She shrugged. “As I said, Reginald Everheart was a well-known and highly respected American explorer. My father was quite looking forward to meeting him when he was last in London some years ago. Unfortunately, he met with an untimely end while in England.” She shook her head mournfully. “According to Father, his mortal remains were swept out to sea and never seen again. He was reputed to be handsome and dashing.” Her assessing gaze slid over him once again and she nodded. “In that respect you will certainly do.”
He stared. “You want me to play the part of Reginald Everheart?”
“Weren’t you listening to me?” She huffed. “I said he’s dead. Body swept out to sea and all that.”
“Then what role am I to play?” He wasn’t sure he wished to hear the answer.
“You are to be Mr. Everheart’s son.” She beamed in triumph. “Earnest Everheart.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Is that a real person?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Do you even know if this Everheart had sons?”
“No, nor does it matter.” Her brows drew together. “Everheart was American and his visits to England were rare. I doubt anyone you might encounter between now and Christmas will question whether or not you are legitimately his son.”
“I suppose,” he said slowly, “but have you considered all the possible ramifications of this little plot of yours? All the things that could go wrong?”
“Nonsense. ” Anabel ticked the points off on her fingers. “For one thing, few people here have ever even met Reginald Everheart. Father hadn’t and he knows everyone. Two—the man, and presumably his family, were American. Who knows how many sons or daughters for that matter he might have. And three—the chance of anyone from America who might know the Everheart family randomly appearing in London at the Christmas festivities we’ll be attending is very nearly non-existent.” She cast him a triumphant smile. “I really don’t see what could possibly go wrong.”
“It’s been my experience that the moment anyone questions what could go wrong is the very moment everything does. And I can think of any number of problems with this plan.”
She waved off his comment. “Oh, I think my aunt and I have thought of everything.”
“Have you?” What about the unexpected appearance of the actor her aunt had actually hired? Or her aunt seeing Wes and calling him out as an imposter? “Speaking of your aunt, will she be here tonight?”
“Unfortunately no. She had intended to be but I received a note from her late this afternoon. Apparently she had another engagement she had forgotten about. Not unusual for Aunt Lillian. ”
Wes knew this plan of Anabel’s and her aunt’s was a bad idea but specific reasons why eluded him at the moment. What concerns would a real actor have? “Have you thought about me? Aren’t you afraid someone will recognize me? From my many stage performances?”
“Goodness, you are arrogant aren’t you?”
“I prefer confident to arrogant.”
“Self-delusion is always comforting.” She cast him a decidedly pitying smile. “My aunt said you would be amenable to this endeavor because you are not especially successful.”
“Today maybe but tomorrow . . .” He smirked.
She raised a brow. “Dreams of stardom, Mr. Grant?”
“We all have dreams of stardom, Miss Snelling. What would be the point otherwise?”
“There is such a thing as over-confidence.”
“When one is about to go onstage, in front of hundreds of people, and try to convince them he’s someone he’s not, there is no such thing as over-confidence. And for this particular role, I don’t think you want someone who isn’t completely sure of himself.”
“You may be right there.” She paused. “Are you ready to meet my father?”
“Not quite yet. There are a few more things we need to discuss.”
“Your fee, of course.” She nodded. “I’ll speak with my aunt and arrange for that immediately.”
“It’s not that, I’m in no hurry. I’m not quite as struggling as your aunt may think.” He shrugged aside her offer. “No, it’s about Earnest.”
She frowned. “What about him?”
“I don’t like the name,” he said loftily. “Earnest Everheart? It has no ring to it. No . . .drama.”
“My aunt suggested it. It’s a perfectly fine name.”
“It’s the name of someone who can’t achieve his goals or attain his desires. It’s an awful name for the kind of dashing, attentive suitor you’re looking for.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I assume you do wish for dashing and attentive?”
“This would be pointless otherwise,” she said sharply.
Obviously Miss Anabel Snelling was used to getting her own way. He bit back a grin.
“Earnest.” He shook his head. “I’m not an Earnest.”
“But you are an actor.”
“What you expect of me goes far beyond a few hours on a stage. Furthermore, there are no written lines. Nothing to memorize and certainly nothing to rehearse. I shall have to make my lines up spontaneously.” He shook his head. “It will not be easy.”
“You are being paid for it.”
“Regardless, given the unique aspects of this particular performance I think we need to do all we can to minimize the possibility of mistakes. While the important part of the man’s name is Everheart—which I assumed you picked to impress your father.”
“The first name is not significant.”
Her brows drew together in annoyance. “I suppose not.”
“Then I suggest we dispense with Earnest in favor of another name.”
“And what might that be?” she said wryly.
“I suggest Wesley. It’s a good, strong name. The sort of name an explorer would give his son.”
She stared. “It’s your name.”
“Therefore easy to remember.”
“No man of adventure would name his son Earnest.”
“I said very well.” Her cool tone belied the flicker of amusement in her eyes. “You’re not exactly what I expected, Mr. Grant.”
He met her gaze and smiled into those enchanting green eyes. “I hate being expected, Miss Snelling.”
“Apparently, we have more in common than I would have thought.” She smiled albeit reluctantly. “If there’s nothing else, it’s time for you to meet my father and pretend to be madly in love with me.”
“It will be my very great honor.” He opened the doors. “As well as my pleasure.”
“It will be your role.” She swept through the open doors. “A paying role I might add and nothing more than that.”
He chuckled. If Anabel Snelling wanted an actor he’d give her one. And if, in the process, he advanced his own purpose as well so much the better. He’d wondered if this trip to London was a waste of time, especially since it meant missing Christmas with his family. That was still to be determined. But right now, he was fairly certain it was going to be a great deal of fun.
now, read the rest of the story . . .
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