Yours for Christmas by Lilian Monroe

1

Ada

My gown flowslike liquid silver over my skin. Glancing up at my sisters as I enter the living room, I spread my palms. “What do you think?” Giving them an awkward smile, I run my fingers over the silky fabric.

“When did you get so pretty?” my younger sister Kiera asks. She pushes her thick-rimmed glasses further up her nose, her other hand still poised over the laptop on her thighs. “Even when you dress up for your piano performances, you never look this good.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” I grin, rolling my eyes.

“You look gorgeous, Ada,” Maggie says. My older sister’s eyes are soft, and her dark hair is pulled back in a smooth, sleek ponytail at the nape of her neck. Even with a gray air cast strapped all the way up to her mid-calf and her broken ankle propped up on the couch in front of her, she still manages to look put together. With a cashmere cardigan draped over her shoulders and a simple string of pearls around her neck, she is every bit a duchess.

She should be the one wearing this gown, not me.

“I wish you hadn’t broken your ankle.” I sigh. “You’ve never had an accident dancing before.”

My sister, gracefully reclined on the chaise, gives me a soft smile. Only slight tension around her eyes betrays how much her injury bothers her. “I’ll be dancing again in no time. The Farcliff Ballet Company has assured me they’ll support my recovery for as long as it takes. Plus, it’s been years since you’ve attended a royal event. It’s your turn.”

“My turn to endure the drudgery?” I pop an eyebrow.

Maggie’s smile tugs, her noble façade shimmering for a moment. “Your turn to enjoy yourself,” she corrects.

I nod, shifting my weight from foot to foot. I bite my lip, only remembering after a moment that it’s painted bright red, and I’ve probably smeared my lipstick all over my teeth.

A graceful duchess I am not.

Reading my body language, Maggie smiles. “You’ll be great, Ada. You have every right to be at the castle in my place, and you’ll make a wonderful impression on the King and Queen.”

“Will I, though? I do have that whole foot-in-mouth syndrome, where I blurt out the wrong thing at the worst possible time.”

Maggie grins, shaking her head. “It’s all in your head. Everyone loves you. Say hello to Count Gregory for me.”

My lips turn down. “Are you sure you still want to marry him?” I ask. “He’s twice your age.”

“It’s a good match,” Maggie answers. She glances at Kiera, whose nose is firmly pressed against her computer screen.

Maggie’s upcoming betrothal to Count Gregory is a good match because it will elevate our family’s standing. Count Gregory is well-connected, especially with universities and colleges in the Kingdom. He’s a benefactor to a number of research institutions and has the ear of most deans and university directors on the continent.

So, if Maggie marries Count Gregory, it will give Kiera the opportunity to attend the best university in Farcliff Kingdom at the tender age of fifteen. Our little sister is a bona fide genius, and she deserves the best.

It’s just that our family’s position has slipped somewhat in the past couple of decades, and the best isn’t exactly available to her without this marriage.

My grandfather made some bad business decisions, and my parents care more about art than they do about money. Simply put, we don’t have the cash to put her through university. Doing so would require selling the Belcourt Estate, which would strip us of our titles and standing.

Maggie marrying Count Gregory would solve a lot of issues. But—ugh. He’s old. Judging by the pictures I’ve seen, he wouldn’t be Maggie’s first choice for a husband. He wouldn’t even be my last choice. Wouldn’t make the list.

We’re the type of royals who, if we happen to end up in a tabloid or magazine, need an explanation following our names. Not exactly A-list celebrities, but enough royal blood to make us noteworthy on a slow news day.

My grandfather was the former King’s younger brother. Grandpa had seven children, the youngest of which is my father. So I suppose the current King is my second cousin. Or is it first cousin once removed? I don’t know. The family tree is sprawling, and the reigning monarch and I are on opposite sides. I’m currently one hundred and twelfth in the line of succession, after Maggie.

I don’t get recognized in the street, is what I’m saying, but I do get called Lady Belcourt when I go to official events. Which is rarely, by the way.

We’re the type of royals who need to work—albeit we have bourgeois, aristocratic jobs. My parents run an art gallery in Farcliff City, Maggie is a ballet dancer, and I’m a concert pianist. We’re not plastering walls for a living, but we aren’t spending all our time doing charity, either. In the pecking order of royals, the Belcourts are solidly on the bottom rung.

I’m not holding my breath as I wait for my chance to sit on the throne. I’ve successfully avoided royal responsibilities.

Until now.

As I try to stuff down the fluttering nerves in my belly, I turn to see my mother and father walking through the living room doorway. My mother is in her finest gown, a simple, elegant black taffeta dress. My father, in his crisp tuxedo, rubs his hand over his freshly-shaven face. His hair, now entirely gray, is combed back in a sleek yet effortless style.

The Duke and Duchess of Belcourt.

They don’t look like members of the royal family hanging onto a tenuous relationship to their land and titles. They look completely at ease with themselves and with our destination this evening.

Our destination being Farcliff Castle, for the annual Royal Christmas Ball.

This year, the entire Kingdom is coming. It’s the new heir’s first Christmas. His Highness Prince Charlie is the first child of the new King and Queen. There was some controversy with King Charlie taking the throne beside a commoner, Queen Elle, but I personally adore them. They thumbed their nose at tradition and followed love.

Unlike Maggie, who will need to marry crotchety old Count Gregory to make sure our little sister can go to college.

Everyone who’s anyone is going to the ball to welcome the young heir into the world. Everyone, including my parents and me—even though I’m not sure we qualify as people who matter.

I clear my throat, trying to hide my nerves. I’ve only been to the castle once in the past ten years, at which time I told the former King that I liked his mustache, but had he ever considered dyeing it so it matched his hair?

Foot-in-mouth, remember?

Reading my mind, Maggie smiles at me, pulling me from my thoughts. She dips her chin down as if to say, You’ll be fine. Stop worrying.

Kiera gasps, looking up from her laptop. “The Duke of Blythe is attending.” Her fingers fly over the keyboard, presumably to pull up every available photo and live stream of the ball. Her cheek turns pink as her eyes bug out. “He looks so hot.”

“Kiera,” Mother chides, pinching her lips. “That’s no way for a lady to speak.”

“It’s the truth,” my little sister replies, spinning the laptop around. A photo of the reclusive Duke of Blythe stares back at me, and my knees go weak. Even in an unposed, unedited paparazzi photo, Kiera’s right. He looks more than human, like he was made just a little too perfect to be real. His eyes are an impossibly complicated shade of green, like the color of a forest canopy in midsummer. His strong, chiseled jaw looks sharp enough to slice the laptop screen open.

Unlike my father, the Duke has chosen to keep a smattering of stubble over the lower half of his face. I don’t know why that makes my stomach clench.

The Duke inherited everything when his parents passed away four years ago, but everyone says he’s ruining himself and his estate. His parents were well-known musicians who started one of the finest piano-making businesses in the world. They hired all the best artisans and made Blythe Pianos famous worldwide. I’ve only ever played a Blythe piano once in my life, but I still remember the way it felt and sounded—incredible.

By all accounts, the Duke of Blythe spent the last four years running the family business into the ground. A little stubble on his jaw is the least of his worries.

Clearing my throat, I turn away from the screen and force a smile at my mother. “Ready?”

She extends a gloved hand toward me, giving me a soft smile. “You look beautiful, Ada.”

“Ada!” Kiera calls out behind me. I turn around to see a wicked, cheeky grin on her face. “Get a selfie with the Duke of Blythe and tell me if he’s as perfect in person as he is in photos. I bet he smells amazing.”

Kiera’s cheeks are red, her eyes shining with the energy of a young teenager. She stares at me expectantly as my mother makes a disapproving noise, but I can’t quite hide my smile.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I answer, earning an even louder disapproving noise from Mother.

My little sister squeals, throwing her laptop to the side and jumping up to give me a hug. She stops short at the last second, holding up her hands. “Don’t want to ruin your dress.”

I blow her a kiss. “I’ll get you a picture.”

Kiera smiles wider. “Thanks. The girls at school are so in love with him. Did you know he hasn’t left the Blythe Estate in over a year? They say he gets women delivered there along with all his food.”

“Kiera, that’s enough,” Mother snaps. “The Duke of Blythe values his privacy, and it’s completely inappropriate and unbecoming for you to be spreading nasty rumors about him. We all know what he’s been through. I wouldn’t want to leave my castle, either.”

Kiera pouts. “I heard his brother—”

“Enough.” My mother’s voice leaves no room for protest.

Kiera drops her chin, but flicks her eyes up to mine. There’s no remorse in them, only a deep, bubbling curiosity.

I grin. I suppose if I were fifteen, I’d be interested in a man like the Duke of Blythe, too.

The Duke is shrouded in controversy. His younger brother passed away four years ago, and they say his parents died of a broken heart shortly afterward. Within six months, the Duke lost his brother and both his parents and inherited the lands, titles, the business, and responsibility of the dukedom.

It caused ripples in Farcliff high society.

Those poor parents. No one should have to see their children die,old ladies would whisper. Then, I heard it was an overdose.

Judgment and sympathy, so tightly intertwined it’s impossible to tell the difference between the two. His brother was a drug addict who overdosed, and his parents couldn’t take the heartbreak. Or maybe the shame.

And the new Duke of Blythe?

He retreated. Brooding, unreachable, and attractive enough to make him interesting. Schoolgirls all over Farcliff are obsessed with him—Kiera being one of them.

Right now, I appreciate him if only for the fact that it’ll give me something to do while I’m at the stuffy, pretentious Royal Christmas Ball.

Operation: Get A Selfie With A Reclusive Dukehas begun.

I grin at my sister, then do my best to school my features before turning around to nod at my parents. “Let’s go.”