Excerpt from Greetings of the Season
“Dashed if I can figure why everyone gets in such a pucker over this Christmas shopping nonsense.” Bevin Montford, the Earl of Montravan, paused in the act of putting the last, critical fold in his intricately tied neckcloth. His valet, standing by with a second or—heaven forfend his lordship be struck with a palsy or such—a third starched cravat, held his breath.
“Why, the park was so thin of company this afternoon, you’d think the ton had packed up and gone to their country places weeks early,” the earl complained to the mirror. “Where was everyone? Traipsing in and out of shops as if the British economy depended on their spending their last farthings.”
The earl finally lowered his chin, setting the crease in his neckcloth. Finster, the valet, exhaled. Another perfect Montravan fall. He tenderly draped the reserve linen over the rungs of a chair and reached for his lordship’s coat of blue superfine, just a shade darker than the earl’s eyes.
“And now here’s Coulton, crying off from our dinner engagement,” Montravan went on, shrugging his broad shoulders into the garment. No dandy, the earl refused to have his coats cut so tightly that he’d require two footmen to assist. He made sure the lace of his shirt cuffs fell gracefully over his wrists while Finster straightened the coat across his back. “I never thought I’d live to see Johnny Coulton turning down one of Desroucher’s meals to go shopping. Haring off to an Italian goldsmith in Islington, no less.”
Finster was ready with the clothes brush, making sure no speck of lint had fallen on the coat between his final pressing and his lordship’s occupancy. “I understand Lord Coulton is recently engaged,” Finster offered, more relaxed now that the more crucial aspects of his employer’s toilette were complete.
“What’s that to the point? The chit’s blond with blue eyes. Sapphires, obviously. Rundell and Bridges ought to be sufficient for the purpose.”
“Ah, perhaps Lord Coulton wished to express his affection in a more personal manner.”
“More expensive, you mean. Deuce take it, he’s already won the girl’s hand; there’s no need for such extravagance.”
“If the viscount is indeed visiting goldsmiths, he might wish to design a bit of jewelry himself to show his joy at the betrothal.”
“Claptrap. You’ve been reading the housekeeper’s Minerva Press novels again, haven’t you?” The earl turned from the mirror to catch his longtime servant’s blush. “Ah, Finster, still a romantic after all these years? I must be a sad trial to you.”
“Not at all, my lord,” the valet said with a smile, thinking of all the positions he’d been offered and had turned down. There could be no finer gentleman in the ton to work for, none more generous and none who appeared more to his valet’s credit than the nonpareil earl. Of course, Lord Montravan was a bit high in the instep, his valet admitted to himself, but how not, when he’d been granted birth, wealth, looks, and charm in abundance? No, Lord Montravan’s only fault, according to the loyal Finster, was a sad lack of tender emotions. Still, the valet lived in hope. He passed the silver tray that contained the earl’s signet ring and watch fob, the thin leather wallet, and the newly washed coins. He also proffered, by way of explaining Lord Coulton’s defection, “L’amour.”
“Larks in his brainbox, more likely, getting himself into a pother over a trinket for a wench. And those other clunches, the ones who were too frenzied for a hand of cards at White’s yesterday, nattering on about where to find the perfect fan, the best chocolates, the most elegant bibelot for madam’s curio. Gudgeons, every last one of them, letting their wits go begging over this nonsensical holiday gift giving.”
Finster cleared his throat. “Ah, perchance the gentlemen find the difficulty more in the expense than in the selection. The ladies do expect more than a bit of trumpery at this time of year,” he hinted.
The earl sighed. “What, dished again, Finster?” He casually tossed a coin to the smaller man, who deftly caught it and tucked it out of sight in one of his black suit’s pockets. “You’d think you’d have learned after all these years either to save your shillings or not to fall in love at the Christmas season. What female has caught your eye this week?”
“The new French dresser at Lady Worthington’s. Madeleine.” Finster whispered the name and kissed his fingertips.
“French, eh?” Montravan tossed another coin, which followed its brother, then shook his head. “Next I suppose you’ll be wanting the afternoon off to do your shopping.”
“The morning should be sufficient, milord, thank you.” Finster smiled. “After milord returns from his ride, naturally.”
“Naturally. I suppose I should be thankful my own valet is not abandoning me in favor of the shops.” The earl gave a final combing through his black curls with his fingers, setting them into the fashionable windswept style. One curl persisted in falling over his high forehead. He shrugged and left it.
“Though it would be all of a piece with this wretched week. What gets into everyone mid-December that their attics are to let? There must be some brain fever that scrambles perfectly normal minds into this mush of indecision, this urge to outrun the bailiffs, this agony of self-doubt over a bauble or two. Just look at you, the most fastidious person I know.” He waved his manicured hand around his own spotless bedchamber, where not a towel remained from his bath, not a soiled garment was in sight, not a loose hair reposed on the Aubusson carpet. “Then comes Christmas shopping. You are ready to desert your post in order to wait for some caper-merchant to deign to assist you in spending your next quarter’s salary. Mush, I say. Your brains have turned to mush along with everyone else’s.”
Finster smiled as he polished the earl’s quizzing glass on a cloth he pulled from another pocket. “There is no other way, milord.”
“Of course there is,” said Montravan, surveying his person through the glass. “Organization, efficiency, an orderly mind—that’s all it takes to keep this idiocy in proper perspective. You don’t see me chasing my own shadow up and down Bond Street, do you?”
“No, milord, your secretary does that for you.”
The earl chose to ignore that home truth. “Humph. The diamond or the black pearl?” he asked, nodding toward the velvet-lined tray holding his stickpins.
Finster surveyed the earl, the muscular thighs encased in black satin, the white marcella waistcoat with silver embroidery. “The ruby, I believe, will be more festive. ’Tis the season, after all.”
Montravan frowned. “Blast the season.”
Still, he affixed the ruby in his neckcloth, told his man not to wait up for him, and stepped jauntily down the stairs.