Lady Rosalind Chatham's arranged marriage cannot withstand the wonder of a Christmas wish glistening with true love and happy ever after.
Title: Once Upon a Christmas Castle
Author: Virginia Barlow
Publication Date: November 6, 2023
Genre: Holiday Romance
About the Book:
Lady Rosalind Chatham journeys with her family to Weston Castle to wed an ancient earl on Christmas day. Yearning for true love, she falls for the duke, her stepfather’s cousin, while preparing her nuptials. Lady Rosalind entrances the Duke of Weston. Concerned for her future with the tempestuous earl, he can’t afford to get involved. The fines and scandal will be too great for a man of his wealth and power. When the truth comes to light, and he almost loses her forever, he finds he cannot afford to give less than his whole heart.
Once Upon a Christmas Castle is a wonderful holiday romance. Set to marry and older earl, Lady Rosalind yearns for true love - not a match that isn't made in heaven. When Lady Rosalind meets the Duke of Weston, and things in her and the Duke's life suddenly go sideways.
I enjoyed this story. The plot was solid and the author's writing style, character development, and plot twists kept me engaged. I will definitely be checking out more books by this author.
I was provided a copy of this book.
What Critics Are Saying:
“Loved this holiday romance between Lady Rosalind (Ruby) and the charismatic Duke of Weston. Facing a forced marriage to a loathsome noble, Rosalind uncovers lies and betrayal which almost cost her the life of the man she loves.
With plot twists, devious characters, attempted abduction, and touches of humor– thanks to a little boy and his unpredictable pet frog– this Christmas novel is a delightful holiday read!”
Read a Book Excerpt:
Late November 1813
Lady Rosalind Chatham’s first view of Weston Castle took her breath away.
Gazing out the little window of her stepfather’s luxurious carriage as they turned a corner on the winding road, the trees of the dense forest fell away to reveal a magical, ethereal structure rising high above them.
Standing tall against the dark foliage of the forest, the heavy stone castle sparkled in the afternoon light.
Rosalind blinked up at the elegant towers and spires caressing an azure blue sky holding communion with fluffy white clouds and sighed with appreciation.
The relatives spoke of the beauty of Weston Castle, but their lavish praise in no way prepared her for this glorious reality.
Allowing her gaze to roam the enchanting scene before her, she wondered how the gate to her private hell could resemble the entrance to heaven. Such a thing should not be allowed, for it played with her mind and heart in a most unpleasant fashion. Shaking her head at the irony of the situation, she turned her attention back to the lavish grounds surrounding them.
The cobblestone road they traveled on meandered through acres of manicured gardens strewn with glistening diamond-studded droplets of frost to an impressive outer wall made of stone and curved metal.
Guards dressed in blue, gold, and black stood at attention beside the arched entrance welcoming her stepfather and mother in the forward carriage before waving the rest of the entourage through. Their warm breath hung suspended in the frosty air as they acknowledged their
Rosalind’s heart skipped a beat as their carriage wheeled past the guards. She had never been so happy and so distraught for a journey to end.
Her ancient, newly acquired fiancé, the Earl of Gloucester, would arrive within a fortnight for the wedding, planned for Christmas Day. Feeling as though she received a lump of coal in her stocking, a shiver of revulsion skated down her spine when his wrinkled face and snowy white hair popped into her head. Bushy white eyebrows dipped low over dull brown eyes accompanied by thin lips and nose. An inch shorter in stature then she, with a rounded belly and hunched shoulders, he hobbled when he walked because of swelling in his left foot.
When she left this glorious abode, she would do so as his wife. Anxiety twisted a knot in her stomach as she shoved the thought aside.
Two London seasons, a handful of half-hearted suitors, and a less-than-favorable reputation later, she received one proposal, his, a fifty-four-year-old widower anxious to make her his brood mare.
She often wondered where the term “love of my life” originated from. Did one have more than one? She concluded one must after taking her mother into consideration. Mama claimed Rosalind’s father held the title until his untimely death, and following her marriage to Lord Timothy Weston, now claimed her stepfather to be her one true love. Thus, reason dictated each person must have at last two, perhaps more. And if there were so many about, why had she not run into at least one of hers?
“Is this Cousin Lucius’ castle?”
Her five-year-old half-brother’s question jerked her back to the present as he squinted his nose at the drawbridge. “If I knew we were this close, I would have waited to stop.”
The heavy wooden beams groaned under the weight of the carriage.
One of the many reasons her stepfather and mother traveled in their own carriage with Rosalind and Thomas in another had to do with her brother’s frequent stops to relieve his bladder and constant chatter. When her
brother grew bored, he invented reasons to stretch his legs. She would join him if not for the fact she must behave as a lady.
Shaking her head, she replied, “Next time, be patient.”
He gave her an eye roll and studied the scenery with interest. “Do you think Cousin Lucius has a pond?”
Gazing at his angelic face, she smiled. The child’s big blue eyes stole her heart the second he appeared in this world as a tiny babe, and she held him in her arms for the first time. She alone possessed the fortitude to
deal with his precocious behavior.
“Papa says he does.” Although Lord Timothy did not father her, she called him Papa since she had no recollection of her real father.
“If I had patience, I would not have found Admiral Georgeous Frederick Alexander Junior the Third.” A wiggly, croaking object appeared from the inner pocket of his jacket, clutched tight in a chubby hand.
Rosalind’s eyebrow rose. “Who? What is this? You caught a frog?”
He nodded with a wide grin and set the amphibian down on his best linen trousers.
She frowned in alarm. “He will ruin your breeches and make Mama upset. Put him back in your pocket until I decide what must be done.”
Their carriage rumbled across cobblestones once more and drew to a stop. She shot a quick glance out the window, noting the parents disembarking. Somehow, she must deal with the frog before his presence became known or risk her mother’s fury.
Frowning out the window, she eyed red carpeted stairs leading upward to a tall, dark-haired figure wearing a royal blue jacket with gold braids on the
shoulders and black breeches standing cold and aloof at the top. A regal white and gray dog sat at attention beside the duke, eyeing the newcomers.
The gentleman must be Cousin Lucius, the Duke of Weston. His face remained expressionless, and his manner impeccable as the parents approached. Then with a slight nod of his head, his grace welcomed them to Weston. The dog lay still like a statue, and the only movement arose from the breeze ruffling his thick fur.
The parents spoke with the duke for a moment, and then her mother dipped an elegant bow low enough to impress royalty while her stepfather shook hands with the impressive figure before them.
Masculine, powerful, wealthy, and distant Lucius Alexander Phillip Weston became the fifth Duke of Weston five years prior upon the death of his
grandfather. As head of the Weston family, the duke invited one relative per holiday season to stay at his castle.
This season, their turn arrived with an extravagant and very expensive, gilded invitation signed by the duke’s own hand. Fortuitous considering her recent engagement? Perhaps. Rosalind suspected the duke invited them out of sheer despair at the thought of opening another of her mother’s hundred-and-one letters begging for the honor.
Mama obsessed over impressing Rosalind’s fiancé and exaggerated their financial situation to the point a wedding in the castle was necessary to keep the earl from guessing the true nature of their circumstance. Her
mother believed if the earl had knowledge of their lack of funds, he would withdraw his proposal, and she would be pitied by the local nobility for failing to obtain an advantageous marriage for her only daughter.
Frantic to maintain the façade and her social position in their little village, she sent a new letter every day, entreating her husband’s distant cousin to allow them the privilege of the upcoming nuptials.
The present returned with a bump when the parents turned and motioned toward their carriage. What if the dog smelled the frog? Panic flared as she gazed from her brother to his wiggling, jumping companion still sitting in his lap and returned to the forbidding scene on the stairs. The amphibian must go.
“Mama and Papa want to make a good impression on his grace. You must leave the admiral in the carriage so we do not disappoint them.”
“But he is part of the family now. Why can he not meet Cousin Lucius?” The boy held his pet up to her nose as he asked his question.
“Your friend might shock the parents since he is so new to our household. Put him on the carriage seat, and we will return for him later.” She jumped when the carriage door opened, and a footman set the step stool on
the ground, holding his hand out to offer her assistance.
“But I want him to come!” The boy’s voice grew in volume, and his lower lip stuck out, threatening a fullblown mutiny.
If Thomas did not calm down, Mama would scorch her ears later. “Fine.” Thinking quick, she stuffed the frog into the left pocket of her gown where she could monitor the situation and hopefully hide the scent from the great beast beside the duke. “He shall ride with me.
The child’s rebellion disappeared like a foul scent in the breeze, followed by another wide grin as they stepped from the carriage. “You should call the duke cousin, too. I am sure he will not mind.”
Mama frowned. “Who, Thomas? Who will not mind?” Casting a quick worried glance in Rosalind’s direction, she took two steps toward them.
“Everything is fine, Mama. Thomas expressed his opinion. Nothing more.” She kept her hand against her pocket to hide the wiggling bulge and prayed no one would notice.
Her mother visibly relaxed and held her hand out to the boy. “Come.” Catching her brother by the hand, she turned to their host. “Your grace, I would like to introduce you to our son, Thomas Hutchinson Weston.”
Rosalind stopped a foot behind and waited her turn, her gaze on the dog
To his credit, the child executed a perfect bow in response to the duke’s deep voice bidding him welcome to the castle.
“And this?” The deep voice drew her gaze to his, and her knees clacked together as their host’s gaze lingered on her hair and face before perusing the rest of her.
Stepping forward, she swallowed and waited for the parents to make the introduction.
The duke stood six feet tall if an inch, possessed dark wind-swept hair, piercing blue eyes, a broad forehead, straight nose, and a dimple in his chin. His jacket emphasized the breadth of his shoulders and the
narrowness of his waist. His muscled thighs strained against the fabric of his breeches, and his boots gleamed in the sunlight. No man of this caliber had stood this close to her before, and Rosalind snapped her gaping
mouth closed, dropping her gaze before her expression gave her fascination away.
“Lady Rosalind Chatham, daughter of my wife’s late husband, the Earl of Chatham.” Papa stood beside her, gripping her elbow.
She dipped a deep curtsy, and the frog jumped in alarm, straining against the fabric of her pocket.
The dog let out a low growl, and cold sweat broke out on her forehead.
The duke’s cool, impassive gaze dropped to the pocket of her gown while he snapped his fingers at the animal beside him. “Silence, Ulysses.”
The white beast did not make another sound but kept his gaze fixed on her pocket.
Clasping her hand against the opening to keep the amphibian from escaping, she rose to her feet and pinched the edges of the fabric together with her left hand, hoping she adopted a believable level of disinterest in the dancing fabric at her hip. Casting a worried glance at the dog, she smiled, ignoring the panic in her chest.
Mama would never forgive her if something went amiss, and this situation contained enough potential to effect ancestors yet unborn. She inched backward, praying the breeze blew her scent away from the massive dog, not toward him.
“Do not be shy, Rosalind.” Mama nudged her forward, and with her attention on the dog, she tripped on a stair.
“Ah, the bride.” The duke’s gaze traveled over her a second time, and a smile touched his mouth. “Welcome to my home, Lady Rosalind.” He bowed from the waist and took her right hand in his, kissing her gloved
The dog leaned forward, staring at her pocket.
“I call her Ruby. She is my sister.” Thomas stepped to her side to establish ownership, tugging on her left hand, the one holding her pocket closed, and glared up at the duke.
To her extreme consternation. she lost her grip on the edges of the fabric, and Admiral Georgeous Frederick Alexander Junior the Third made his debut into the family by jumping out onto the duke’s bent
Everyone reacted at once.
The dog barked and leaped at the duke, jumping around his master for a better vantage point.
Anxious to contain the situation, Rosalind made a dive for the frog while Mama screamed for help. Thomas yelled and dove in to retrieve his pet at the same time she did. They hit heads, falling to the ground in a heap. She
groaned in frustration.
Papa burst out laughing, offering no assistance whatsoever, to Mama’s verbal dismay.
While the duke snapped his finger at the dog, captured the amphibian with one hand, and surveyed the group before him as if this were a common occurrence.
The dog whined and dropped to his belly, keeping his gaze on the frog.
The liveried butler, two steps behind, hurried to the duke’s side to relieve him of the green wiggling creature while Papa continued to chuckle, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.
“You owe me twenty gold coins, Amelia. We have not been here a full ten minutes, and already we have an incident.”
Her mother sputtered apologies as she fluttered around the duke, trying to help but unwilling to touch the loathsome creature he held. She gave the dog a wide berth.
“Cease this fuss.” The duke’s quiet voice stopped everyone mid-stride. He held his free hand down to assist Rosalind to her feet before studying her and Thomas.
Silence filled the cobblestone area around them as the duke gazed from one to the other. “To whom does this creature belong?” Blue eyes narrowed on her face as he waited for her answer.
Her heart beat loud in her ears, and a band tightened around her chest as she considered possible repercussions. His grace might send them home in
shame. And if he did, Mama would send her to a convent to hide her embarrassment from the world. No one wanted the social disgrace of having a spinster for a daughter, least of all her mother. Marrying the earl was her one chance for acceptance and approval.
Anxiety turned to nausea and rose in her throat as her future loomed before her sending fear skittering down her spine. The punishment would be far worse for Thomas. A convent, she could escape from, but a boarding school for him would crush his spirit, and without her, he would be unmanageable.
Swallowing, she lifted her chin to meet the duke’s piercing gaze and take responsibility. “He belongs—”
She squeezed her brother’s hand, stopping short when Thomas stepped forward.
“He is mine. Ruby kept him safe in her pocket so he would not embarrass Mama.” The child stood with his head thrown back, his gaze unwavering as he faced their host.
“I see.” The duke held the frog out and glanced down at the boy. “And did you plan to carry him into my home?”
Thomas nodded. “We must because we named him, and he is part of the family now. He cannot stay in the carriage. He will get lonely.”
Mama groaned as if she could hold back no longer.
“For God’s sake, Thomas, frogs do not belong in castles nor in carriages. Really, Rosalind, I should think you would discourage him rather than abet him in his nonsense. His grace will no doubt want us to return home now, and I warned you of the repercussions if he did.
How can this happen when I worked so hard to get us here?” Flushing with embarrassment, Mama dipped down in a swooning curtsy, addressing their host. “Your grace, I do apologize for all this.” Waving her hand toward her two children and the frog still wiggling in the duke’s fingers. “What can we do to make this up to you?”
“May I have him back?” The boy held his arms up to retrieve his pet, not at all repentant.
The dog whined as if unable to bear the tension of the frog being so close and having to obey his master and stay.
Rosalind held her breath and waited as the duke studied the boy’s face, her mother’s fawning curtsy, and Papa’s jovial laughter. Thinking he meant to be stern with them all, he surprised her by dropping to his haunches, becoming eye level with the child.
“You may have him on one condition. While you are here at the castle, you must ask before you invite any more creatures into my home whether they are part of the family or not. I like to know who occupies my castle. Do
I have your word?”
Thomas did not hesitate. “Yes, your grace. Thank you, Cousin Lucius.”
Their host handed the frog back to the boy and rose to his feet. Holding out his hand to help Mama to hers, he offered her his arm. “If I may voice my opinion, do not be too harsh with them, my lady. The boy meant no
harm. Frogs do possess a certain charm for lads of his age. As for Lady Rosalind, she meant to defend the boy. A kind heart is an admiral trait in a young lady.”
Mama gaped and then snapped her mouth closed as she allowed him to lead her up the stairs to the heavy entrance door while monitoring the large dog keeping pace on the duke’s other side. “I pray you feel as lenient
toward us by the time we leave, your grace.”
Papa fell in behind them, clasping his hands behind his back as he strolled along, still chuckling. “I agree, Lucius. Both with you and my wife. I remember a time or two we were sent to our chambers for such antics.”
The three approached the open door to the castle and disappeared inside.
Rosalind followed, bemused by the way their host dealt with her younger half-brother. “Come along, Thomas.” She took his hand and hurried after the parents, trying not to envision the talk she knew her mother planned for later. The duke may be appeased, but Mama would not be until she had her say.
About the Author:
Virginia Barlow has always loved reading romance novels. She used to sneak into her mom’s room as a young girl and read them while her mother was gone. As she grew older, her reading tastes expanded to sci-fi, dystopian, paranormal, and fantasy.
She considered becoming an author in her late twenties but as a busy mother with toddlers, she didn’t have the time or the energy. Later, in her fifties, she decided to give it a try and has enjoyed every moment of it since. She recently signed her fourteenth contract and is over the moon with excitement. Writing is truly her happy place.
Her husband of forty-one years is her greatest support as are all her children. Most of them are grown and carving out lives for themselves. But they are the beat of her heart and with every grandchild, the rhythm gets stronger. She enjoys every moment of her life and plans to live them to the fullest.