For last year’s Christmas story contribution, which I reposted a few weeks ago, I took you to modern-day Copenhagen to see how Nicky O spent his Christmas. (Hint: there were Danish Christmas hearts, a potential murder charge, and a very hot night with his married lover.) Ahem. This year’s installment, with a mischievous dowager duchess and a reluctant widower earl in 1870’s England, an excerpt from a future novella, seems downright tame by comparison. But there is that pesky little matter of the mistletoe…
Bennett Fairbank, Earl of Sandalwood, stood in front of the newly-stoked hearth in the study of his son-in-law’s country house and hoped very hard he had not allowed his beloved daughter Lucinda to marry badly. He’d been about to ask her about the inattentiveness and slowness of the servants in her new home when the maid had finally arrived with tea service.
“I’m so sorry.” Lucinda reached for his hands as soon as the maid had left the room and finally stood still long enough for Bennett to kiss her cheek. “We’ve had to hire so many new staff so quickly, what with fifteen guests arriving for the weekend, and Christmas preparations well underway.”
“I’d have thought your husband would have had a full staff ready for his new bride.”
Lucinda squeezed his hands. “Daddy, don’t—”
“Lady Lucinda, here you are!” A familiar voice grated on Bennett’s ears.
The Dowager Duchess of Bridgehampton sailed into the room, bringing with her a blast of cold air from the hallway that reminded Bennett of the long icicles hanging from the eaves, one more task unattended. He might have to take the new servants in hand himself.
“I’m perfectly fine,” the duchess told his daughter, and Bennett realized he’d missed the conversation. “You go see to His and Her Grace.”
Lucinda flashed a smile and dropped a quick curtsy before flying out of the room as fast as the duchess had flown in, ruining yet another chance for him to have a private word with his daughter.
“Uh-hm.” At the sound of the duchess’s throat clearing, Bennett glanced at her. The woman had ensconced herself on the black leather settee, her fitted green gown with its waves of ruffles on the skirt flowing around her like an emerald sea.
Bennett shook his head slightly, wondering when he’d last been distracted by the color of a lady’s gown and realizing it matched the green of her eyes and, more perplexingly, why these unbidden thoughts had come to him now, just as he was considering taking his leave to find Lucinda.
This time Bennett caught sight of the duchess’s face. Those dress-matching eyes bored into him and her mouth was set in a slight scowl, as it usually was when he was in her company.
“I do hope you’re not coming down with something, Your Grace. Have you taken to sneezing, along with that cough?”
She arched an eyebrow. “I’ve nothing a spot of tea won’t fix.”
Bennett glanced at the untouched tea service. “Of course! Where are my manners?” More importantly, where were the wayward servants? He busied himself with attending to the duchess, pouring her tea “with two sugars,” which she needn’t have reminded him in that haughty tone. They had sat across from each other over far too many teacups this past year. As he passed her the cup and saucer, his fingers brushed against hers – ungloved and weighed down in jeweled rings, as always – and he could have sworn he felt a spark, a strange frisson past between them.
He put it down to the overly dry winter air. He poured a cup of tea – strong and uncut – for himself, and smiled in his unwanted companion’s direction. “Lady Bridgehampton, I’m surprised to see you here, now that your son – His Grace – and all of his old schoolmates are married.”
One of those schoolmates had married his own dear Lucinda, after a slightly scandalous incident in a moonlit garden. Bennett had no doubt the meddling of the duchess had had something to do with it. For her part, the duchess took another sip of tea and widened her eyes as though thoroughly innocent.
“I was unaware that the mother of a married son was forbidden from attending Christmas house parties. My younger son is still unmarried, if that allows for an exception to this bizarre new rule.”
Bennett chuckled, then covered it by sipping his own tea. “I see.”
The duchess fidgeted with her hand in her lap and glowered at him. “What is it you think you see, my lord?”
He recognized that thinly-veiled hiss from the lioness and silently reminded himself to tread lightly. Then he opened his mouth and forgot again. “I see what has brought you all the way out here in the midst of a winter storm. Is it possible your unmarried son will be joining us? I’m sure the maidens in our company will be charmed.”
The duchess set down her cup and laced her hands together. “Are you insinuating that I plan to meddle in my son’s life? Or perhaps that I have already done as much where my older son is concerned?”
Now Bennett widened his eyes and took on an air of innocence. “Why ever would I suggest such a thing? I am sure it is mere coincidence that your son, and before him all four of his closest friends, were all felled by love in the same year.”
A small smile played on her lips, which looked so much fuller when she smiled. Proud of herself, was she then? “Providence works in mysterious ways.”
Bennett sat back in his chair, relaxing for the first time since he’d arrived. “Yes, it does.” As do marriage-minded mothers, he didn’t add.
The duchess fidgeted with her hands again and Bennett caught the flash of something red between her fingers. He leaned forward for a better look. “Are those dice, Lady Bridgehampton?” First meddling, now gambling. There was no end to this woman’s shamelessness.
Bennett thought back to his daughter’s courtship with her now husband, about the suspicion he’d had about cards and gambling, suspicions that had not borne fruit upon investigation. But now, the duchess with her dice…Once more he was sure this woman had somehow maneuvered Lucinda into marriage with one of His Grace’s friends, so as to surround her son with married men to influence the young man’s own plans. And it had worked. The minx had gotten away with it. Bennett jumped to his feet and meant to snatch the dice from her conniving hands.
“Don’t look so panicked, Lord Fairbank. They’re just for fun. I rarely place bets on games of chance.” She closed her fist over the dice, leaned forward, and dropped her voice. “I only make bets I’m sure I’ll win. In fact, there is a wager I would make right now if…” She leaned back and shook her head.
Bennett crossed his arms over his chest and refused to ask her to continue. She remained silent as the mantle clock clicked away seconds, then minutes. “Oh fine!” He threw his hands into the air. “You obviously have something you want to tell me, my lady. Let’s have it.”
She grinned and her green eyes sparkled. In that moment, Bennett had the strangest impulse to run the pad of his thumb along her lower lip. The fantasy was broken when she spoke.
“Your mention of my younger son has planted the seed of an idea in my mind.”
That was doubtful, but Bennett, for once, held his tongue.
“I have one of two children unmarried,” she continued, “But it occurs to me you that four of your six children are in a similarly distressing state.”
“We’re none of us distressed, Lady Bridgehampton, I assure you.”
She rose to her feet and stood uncomfortably close to him, but she spoke so quietly, he couldn’t step away or would risk missing her words.
“Four children whose futures are unsettled. Surely that gives you at least a moment’s pause, perhaps in the dead of night when you lie awake in a slumbering house and wonder what will become of them.”
The audacity of the woman to speak of him in his bed shocked Bennett into further silence. His face flushed warm in a way it hadn’t since he’d been a school boy in short pants. The duchess didn’t pounce on that, but her gaze flitted over his face, a sure sign that she knew she’d affected him, had thrown him off-balance, as was always her game.
Bennett backed away from her, then turned on his heel and crossed the room to the partially ajar door. “I really must find Lucinda to have a word with her.”
The duchess, her hands clasped behind her back, merely smiled. “Don’t be frightened away, Lord Fairbank. I merely suggest a wager regarding my son and one of your children.”
The power and money bestowed on her by her late husband had obviously rendered the duchess a bit mad. Still, Bennett’s pride kept him from sprinting through the door and down the hall in search of Lucinda, her husband, other guests, a lackadaisical servant – anyone to get him away from this outrageous woman. He fought the urge to cross his arms over his chest and use his size advantage in a standoff. Instead, he took a deep breath and slowly counted to five as he exhaled, releasing the tension in his shoulders along with the breath. It was a calming technique his late wife had taught their children. His beloved children, whose lives the duchess seemed hell-bent on treating as a game.
She nodded and took a few steps in his direction. “These things take time, so naturally, neither of us will be able to claim victory by the end of the weekend.” She smiled again. “Although I wouldn’t surprise myself if I could carry it out by the start of the new year.”
“You have me at a disadvantage, Your Grace. I have no idea what this wager – which I refuse to take, out of principle – is.”
She had smiled more broadly when he’d used her more formal title, and continued to advance on him. Bennett wondered if he’d been bested somehow.
“It’s very simple,” she said as she moved one small step at a time. “I wager I’ll see my younger son engaged before you see one of your four unmarried children in the same state.”
“I would never trifle with my children’s lives that way.”
“Marriage is hardly a trifle, my lord. It’s very serious business.” She stopped just a foot away from him. Her smile had faded. “And I take it as seriously as it deserves.”
Bennett shook his head, but otherwise felt powerless to move away from her.
She glanced over his head. “You’ve chosen an odd spot in which to stand. I might think you were trying to tell me something.”
Bennett looked up to see the bunch of mistletoe tied with a red ribbon dangling just inches from his head. The childish flush filled his face once again.
The duchess held out her left hand, and he realized she was offering to hand over her dice to him. A surrender, then, of this ridiculous notion to bet on their children’s futures. He held out his right hand to receive the dice, but she slipped her soft, warm right hand into his instead. She was just inches away from him now and she held his gaze without a shred of shyness. But why should she shy away from him? She was no maiden. They were of nearly the same age, even if the blonde hair piled so enchantingly on top of her head held no hint of the gray that bedeviled his own dark hair. Her face was gently creased near her eyes and mouth, subtle laugh lines that spoke of a life well lived with a beloved husband and children.
But her gaze gave away the pain and loneliness she covered with that dazzling smile. Most would miss it. Bennett could not. It was akin to what he hid behind his own practiced cheer.
“So it’s a bet.” The duchess spoke so softly, it took him a moment to be sure he’d heard correctly.
“It’s a…What did you say?”
She glanced at their hands still clasped in front of them. “We’ve shaken on it. We have a bet.”
He’d been bested, after all, and so damned easily! He meant to snatch his hand away from her and give her a firm set-down in no uncertain terms. But something else flared with his anger. He was struck dumb by the fierce desire to touch her lips, those slightly curved, self-satisfied lips.
She began to extricate her hand. He tightened his grip. “Not so fast, Lady Bridgehampton.” He nodded to indicate the greens above his head. “Have you forgotten I’m standing under mistletoe?”
She widened her eyes and parted her lips, but made no move to step away from him. With her right hand still soft and warm in his warm grasp, he slid his left hand to the nape of her neck. When he bent his head to hers, he heard her quick intake of breath. Pure need replaced any last vestige of sense he’d had. He pressed his lips to hers and felt that spark again, but this time it caught and grew into a fire that raced through his blood.
Dice clattered to the floor. Lady Bridgehampton, Bennett’s nemesis for more years than he cared to count, pressed against him and grasped his lapel. And the outrageous dowager duchess kissed him back.