After a tragic loss, Celia Delacourt accepts an unexpected holiday invitation-which is, in fact, a thinly veiled matchmaking attempt. For the lonely Celia and a reluctant young man, it turns out to be a Christmas they’d never forget…
Once Upon a Christmas is a sweet Regency romance that tells the story of a bereaved young woman who is trying to come to terms with the loss of her entire beloved family while struggling to adjust to a new life at the ancestral home of her wealthy relatives, the starchy, autocratic and incredibly proper Delacourts.
Celia Delacourt’s father was disowned by his family when he married a penniless vicar’s daughter. Nevertheless, he and his wife and children were very happy, until a tragic illness took the lives of all of them except Celia, who was away from home at the time the illness struck. Now completely alone in the world, she is facing an uncertain future. The new resident of the vicarage will not be able to house her, and she has no other living relatives to call upon – until one day, she receives a visit from the Duchess of Arnsford, the strictly correct matriarch of the Delacourt family.
Having nowhere else to go, Celia accepts the duchess’ offer to travel to Delacourt, intending to make a stay of only a short time while she explores what other options may be open to her. But the duchess has other ideas and plans for Celia to make Delacourt her permanent home.
What the duchess doesn’t make known immediately is that she intends Celia to marry her son, John, the Marquess of Lynden. John has ever been a cause for concern – he is the only one of her children who is not completely under her thumb, and having had no success in matching him with one of the many eligible debutantes she has thrown into his way, has decided to take a different tack. Celia is country-bred, lacks sophistication and is completely different to the young ladies of the ton; and the duchess decides that she will be just the wife for John once she has been taught how to manage a grand house and trained to be as coldly austere and utterly correct as the duchess’ own daughters.
Getting wind of this when he makes his plans to return home for Christmas, John – who prefers to be known as Jack – fully intends to thwart his mother’s schemes by giving Celia a disgust of him. He arrives at the house wearing the most garish clothes imaginable, and acts like a complete ass, complete with an irritating, braying laugh. A chance remark by one of his sisters causes Celia to think Jack is mentally deranged, and it’s this misconception upon which most of the story is based.
It’s rather thin, it’s true. Even as Jack is fuming over the fact of his mother trying (once more) to interfere in his life, he finds himself captivated by Celia’s kindness and generosity and is drawn to her. He very quickly decides to abandon his plan to alienate her, but by then it’s too late. Celia thinks he’s mad, and even though he tries to set her straight, she persists on believing it and treating him accordingly – with a tenderness and compassion that captivates him even further.
It’s a very simple and at first glance somewhat contrived story. But there are some quite dark aspects to it, found most noticeably in the duchess’ motivations, both during the story, and at other times during her life. The beginning brings to mind Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate – another story in which an orphaned poor relation is suddenly taken in by her wealthy relatives whose motives are not what they at first seem. Like Lady Broome in that book, the duchess very quickly takes steps to make Celia feel indebted to her, but unlike her, the duchess reveals her purposes to Celia fairly quickly. And then there’s the fact that she’s a control freak, obsessed with preserving the family dignity and reputation, and making sure that all around her do the same – and, it would seem, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Her daughters are as cold and haughty as she is, and the gentle secondary romance in the book – between Jack’s sister Elizabeth and a widowed duke – brings home forcefully how much damage has been done to these young women, and how lucky Jack is that as a man, he is able to escape his mother’s strictures by simply removing himself from her orbit.
Jack is a funny, charming hero, albeit not an especially deep one. He is, however, quite perceptive towards Celia, and there are some lovely moments between the two of them which help the reader to buy into the idea that the pair really have fallen in love in the space of a couple of days.
Once Upon a Christmas is a light-hearted read that delivers the required quota of good cheer and gentle humour. It’s not deep or angsty, but ably fulfils the need for a well-written, feel-good seasonal story.