The Earl’s Holiday Wager

Cover art for Holiday Pleasures book 2, The Earl's Holiday WagerHoliday Pleasures book 2
Original publication date: October 2, 2012 (as Season for Surrender)
Reissue date: September 20, 2022
ISBN: 979-8848351903

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In this Regency house party romance, a fake rake and a bold bluestocking ignite a Christmas scandal…

Wealthy and influential, Alexander Edgware, Lord Xavier, cares for nothing but carousing—or so the ton thinks. If he stays up late to read poetry and prefers tea to brandy, who’s to know? His libertine reputation hasn’t hurt anyone but himself…until now, when a misguided wager pulls proper Louisa Oliver into the whirl of his scandalous holiday house party.

Brilliant but shy, Louisa has never fit into polite society. When she learns of her host’s outrageous wager, she decides to give impolite society a try. But Lord Xavier is not what she expected. From Christmas to Twelfth Night, he offers her not scandal, but the run of his library. He seduces her not with kisses, but with puzzles and ciphers. What’s a lady to do but find her courage…and the mistletoe?

As the wicked holiday games begin, Louisa and Xavier might just both lose their reputations—and their hearts…

This book was previously published as SEASON FOR SURRENDER.

Story elements: Rake and bluestocking, house party, wager, codes/puzzles, Christmas

Content Notes
Depictions of sexual harassment


“Witty, passionate, and beautifully written…the perfect holiday gift for lovers of historical romance.”
USA Today bestselling author Vanessa Kelly

“Full of lovely prose and endearing characters who readers can take to their hearts.”
RT Book Reviews, K.I.S.S. (Knight in Shining Silver) hero award

“Romain dishes up a charming Christmas Regency confection complete with a sassy dowager aunt, a virginal bluestocking, and a pair of rakish cousins…A sweet treat for Regency fans.”
Publishers Weekly

“[A] holiday charmer that is rife with lively wit, delightful prose, and an abundance of unforgettable characters.”
Library Journal

“Witty, romantic, and deep. …I loved everything about this book.”
The Season for Romance, TOP PICK

About the Book

  • Quite a few story elements wound up being Italian: works by Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli; la signora; even that long-ago ancestor shared by Alex and Lockwood. When I realized this, I named one of the chapters “Containing Advice from a Variety of Italians.”
  • The character in this book who surprised me the most? The notorious opera singer Signora Frittarelli. She began the book, and the house party, as a no more than a name, but finished as a bittersweet character who really helped Alex.
  • Want more of Louisa and Alex? Their love letters to one another following their marriage are posted on this site’s Extras page. They also appear in the next Holiday Pleasures book, The Baron’s Marriage Gamble (originally titled Season for Scandal).
  • For the visual inspiration behind characters, objects, and settings in the Holiday Pleasures romances, check out the series’s Pinterest board.


Chapter 1
Containing Several Damned Nuisances

December 1, 1818

A MAN DETERMINED TO play a role in polite society must accept the fact that he can never take a day’s rest from it. And Alexander Edgware, the ninth Earl of Xavier, had played a leading role among the haut ton for years.

Today, though, he had a rheumy cold. To one known more for sin than sickness, this was an irritating development.

He’d greeted the day with bloodshot eyes, his head uncomfortably full and sensitive to sound and light. When the day greeted him in return with the inevitable gray drizzle of early winter, he decided to bypass the bow window of White’s—his habitual seat of prominence—for the quieter warmth of the coffee room on the club’s first floor.

As he sat in a leather wing chair before the marble fireplace, toying with a snifter of brandy, Xavier’s feeling of well-being began to return. White’s was a bell jar of wealth and influence, a haven of dark wood and costly carpets, attentive waiters, and fires built high enough to banish the wintry chill entirely.

Oh yes. And White’s had the famed betting book. Sometimes he thought his life centered on that fat, worn leather folio.

He turned a page of his newspaper and scanned the column of on-dits through his quizzing glass. More gossip surrounding the recent death of the queen. Her many children couldn’t stop squabbling, even with grief to unite them. Xavier was not displeased that he was unblessed—or uncursed—by siblings.

He skimmed over the accounts of royal misbehavior, reading the next item with interest. He could guess the identity of Lady S——; the Viscountess Shelton had recently been found in a state of undress with two footmen and a maid. Rather ambitious of her.

Ha. Here was another tidbit of scandal he understood.

Lord L——has parted with his ladybird under mysterious circumstances. The unfortunate female must have failed to give pleasure . . . or did his lordship fail to pay for her charms?

“It was the pleasure, of course,” said a voice at Xavier’s shoulder. A moment later, his distant cousin, the Marquess of Lockwood, dropped into the chair next to Xavier’s. “Damned nuisance, keeping a mistress.”

Xavier folded his newspaper and regarded his cousin. They bore the same dark hair and olive-toned complexions, thanks to a shared Italian ancestor. Lockwood’s eyes were pale blue to Xavier’s gray, though, and just now the marquess wore a smug smile that Xavier would have considered beneath his own dignity.

“You look very pleased with yourself,” Xavier remarked.

“Damned nuisance, being mentioned in the scandal sheets.” Lockwood preened.

“Quite a tragic day for you, if everything has become a damned nuisance. Well, don’t trouble yourself, Lockwood. I believe Lord Lowborough recently turned off his mistress, too, and likely everyone will assume the item refers to him.”

Lockwood’s grin fell, and he snapped for a waiter. “Coffee. Sugar with it.” He noted Xavier’s snifter and added, “A brandy, too.”

The marquess settled back in his chair and slung a booted foot across his other knee. “I’m better off quit of her. A man of the world has no need for such a formal arrangement, eh?”

“It depends on the tastes of the man,” Xavier replied. “I always thought Melissande an elegant sort, though her pug was grotesque. At my summer house party, it soiled half the carpets in the east wing.”

Lockwood raised his eyebrows. “How foul. Though it might as easily have been the woman as the dog, for she wasn’t as elegant as you presume. I assure you, I’m through with her.”

He took his brandy and coffee from the waiter and drained the snifter in one swallow. “Ah. That’s the thing for an abysmal day like today.”

He set the coffee cup down on a spindly table next to his chair. “I say, Coz, you look as though you’d got the devil of a head. Late night?”

Xavier realized: his reddened eyes could just as well be a legacy of drink as his cold. He seized the excuse, offering his most maddeningly secretive expression. “I’m not one to tell what I’ve been up to.”

“No, the scandal sheets are eager enough to do that for you. Where were you last night? Didn’t see you at any of our favorite haunts.”

Probably because he’d plummeted into bed before midnight. This cold had made him miserable all out of proportion to its severity.

“I had a…private encounter.” Very private. Involving only himself and a headache powder.

Lockwood slapped his knee, bumping the spindly table with his boot. His coffee cup rattled a warning in its saucer. “Private, was it? Who was she?”

Xavier grinned, the sudden flash of mischief that made women swoon and call him wicked. “What makes you think there was a woman involved? Perhaps I simply stayed home and turned in early with a good book.”

Lockwood hooted, then snapped for another brandy. “If you’ve read anything besides the on-dits lately, I’ll eat one of your boots.”

“If you so much as touch one, you’ll find it planted in your arse.”

Lockwood laughed again, as he was meant to. Ah, the ever entertaining role of Xavier: parrying, puckishness, and a touch of profanity.

The role certainly did not include any pastime so quiet as reading. So he didn’t mention that, as a matter of fact, he’d read a little Dante before his bleary eyes closed the night before. He’d never claimed to be a scholar, but he had a knack for languages and a fondness for poetry.

He slid his feet closer to the fire, allowing its warmth to saturate the thick leather of his boots, then turned the subject. “We must set our wager soon for my next house party, Lockwood, since it’s less than three weeks away. We can enter it in the betting book before we leave.”

Surely half of the White’s betting book was filled with wagers between Xavier and Lockwood. The last had been only two days ago, when they’d bet two bottles of Armagnac brandy on who could drink his bottle quicker.

Xavier had won. Xavier always won. It was part of being Xavier. And when he had to go to the washroom soon afterward and cast up his accounts, no one noticed, because he talked his way into the wine cellar and returned with a bottle of still better brandy, which he shared among all the spectators to the bet.

That was part of being Xavier, too.

Lockwood raised his refilled snifter and inhaled deeply. “I’ve got a taste for that Grande Champagne brandy you ferreted out a few days ago. Excellent. Makes the Armagnac taste like horse piss.”

Xavier regarded his own snifter of Armagnac. “It does well enough for everyday. But you’re celebrating your freedom from your pug-loving mistress, aren’t you? You ought to have the finest cru today. Let me stand you the bottle.”

“Much appreciated, Coz. Indeed. I’ll have another.” Lockwood’s eyes were a bit red-rimmed, and Xavier wondered if he was as pleased to be free of Melissande as he professed.

The parting of ways could have been due to lack of funds, just as the scandal sheet hinted. Xavier and Lockwood had grown up together, the last remnants of two illustrious titles. But where Xavier’s had grown richer over the passing generations, the Lockwood marquessate’s fortunes had dwindled.

The mistress’s departure, whatever the reason, provided an excuse for Xavier to bear the cost of Lockwood’s brandy. When the two men wagered, they never staked more than a token sum. As often as they bet against one another, Lockwood would have been ruined otherwise.

“The house party, then, now that you’re fortified,” Xavier said. “I was thinking of inviting that opera singer. Signora . . . what is it? Frittarelli?”

“Frittata,” Lockwood snorted, tossing back yet another snifter of the hard liquor.


“Fellatio.” The snort became a guffaw.

Xavier raised his eyebrows. “Language, language. You can only hope.” He smiled to remove the sting. “I do think it’s Frittarelli. She’s singing tonight at Lady Alleyneham’s musicale.”

“I’ve heard she’s a prime piece. I’ll go and get a look at her. Will you come?”

Xavier didn’t have to feign his shudder. “God, no. I’d rather have my fingers chewed off by a dog.” His aching head couldn’t bear a crowded room, a musical cacophony. Not today.

“No need for mutilation,” Lockwood said with a slight hiccup. “I’ll go alone and check out the wares.”

“You must do as you like, of course. Now, for our wager—would you care for a match race? I’ve a new gelding that’s at least as fast as your Tarantella. We could run the horses around Clifton Hall.”

“Not fast enough,” said Lockwood. “The wager, I mean, not the horse. No, much better to bet on the party itself, if it’s to be the usual sort of raucous affair.”

“I’m not inviting Prinny again, if that’s what you have in mind.” The dissolute Prince Regent had ruined as many carpets as Melissande’s pug.

“No, no.” Lockwood batted the suggestion away like a cobweb, wobbling in his chair. “It’s no kind of a challenge to have Prinny cause a rumpus at your house party, and a challenge is what we want.”

He rotated his snifter slowly, then rapped it down onto the table at his side. “I have the very thing. I’ll wager that you can’t get a respectable young woman to attend. Ten pounds on it.”

Xavier never declined a bet, but that didn’t mean he never remolded it to suit his preference. “I won’t risk a marriageable young lady’s reputation, Lockwood. Much better that we bet on the attendance of someone like la signora.”

“But you planned to invite her anyway. We need a challenge. Naturally, the young woman would be permitted a chaperone.”

“No, it won’t do.” Xavier stared down the length of his stretched-out legs. The sheen on his boots was mirror bright despite the puddles outside. He had to watch his every step in order to keep them looking just so.

Lockwood tried again. “Your house party will be a roosting place for the birds of paradise with no place to go for Christmas. Just give it a festive air to appeal to the sparrows, too. Mistletoe in the corners, party games every night. If you’re as charming as all the world says, you should have no trouble persuading a respectable young lady to attend.”

Xavier adopted Expression Number Three, Amused Tolerance. “You said it, Lockwood, not I. I’ve never professed many virtues.”

“The best way to gain virtue,” Lockwood replied with his own attempt at Expression Number Three, “is to employ your well-tried methods of seduction. Yes?”

“I’ll hardly gain virtue for myself by stealing it from a young lady,” Xavier said. “Though as I said, I have no high aspirations for myself in that area.”

“No debauchery need be involved. All you need do is invite the young lady. If she attends, and stays for the full two weeks, then you win the bet. All very proper.” Lockwood smirked. “Unless the lady proves otherwise.”

Xavier hesitated. His house parties weren’t exactly the sort a young lady of quality ought to attend. And he’d never wagered on anyone’s reputation but his own.

“If you’re afraid you can’t do it,” the marquess drawled, “you could forfeit the bet. Here, I’ll enter the wager in the betting book, and then we’ll forget the whole thing.”

He held out his hand. “Ten pounds on it?” His face appeared guileless, but his eyes were not.

Xavier’s fingers flexed, and he clenched them into a fist.

He couldn’t decline the bet. He had a reputation to uphold: this creation, Lord Xavier, whose exploits were as much figments of others’ imaginations as they were of his own doing. One of Lord Xavier’s best-known qualities was that he never turned down a wager. And he never lost.

“No tenner for you,” he said in his breeziest voice. “Enter the bet, and name the young lady. N’importe qui.”

Lockwood’s smile turned feral. He motioned for a servant and demanded writing implements and the betting book, a leather-bound affair of seeming ancientness.

He deliberated over the entry, writing down his name and Xavier’s first, then the stake of ten pounds. “It wouldn’t do to write the lady’s name in the book. But I’ve hit upon the very one, as you’ve given me the choice. You shall invite the lovely Miss Oliver.”

The name was a gut-punch.

Xavier dropped his eyelids, slow and sleepy, to cover his surprise. Louisa Oliver. Damnation.

If there was any lady in London who was certain to decline an invitation from Xavier, it was she—that quiet bluestocking with wary eyes. He knew Miss Oliver blamed him for the scandal that had swirled about her sister’s engagement earlier that year.

But he couldn’t back out now. And he couldn’t allow himself to lose.

“Very well.” He inclined his head. “I’ll wager that Miss Oliver will be in attendance for the full two weeks.”

“Excellent.” Lockwood shut the betting book and handed it back to the waiting servant. “This will be amusing, watching you try to behave yourself for that long.”

“Amusing for others,” Xavier muttered.

His mind tumbled through memories of the dark-eyed Miss Oliver, who had already gauged and dismissed him. This wouldn’t be easy. But everyone had a price—even shy, shrewd maidens. He just had to discover what she wanted.

Then he had an idea.

Lockwood might be right: this house party could be exactly the challenge his life was missing. Xavier had a way of finding pleasure in unexpected situations.

And he’d finish by taking another ten pounds from his cousin. His Christmas gift to himself.

“If you’ll excuse me, Lockwood,” he said, rising to his feet. “It seems I have some invitations to dispatch.”

But they wouldn’t be the invitations Lockwood expected.

Already, Xavier’s head cold seemed less bothersome.

* * *

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