A Celebration with Friends on Christmas Eve - Susanna Ives
Susanna Ives grew up in the rural South, where she spent most of her youth at the local theater, acting in productions, working in the lighting booth, and building sets. Eventually she left her small town for the city lights of Atlanta, where she attended college and worked in corporations as a multimedia developer. These days she chases after her two curious, energetic children, designs web pages, and writes.
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Merry Christmas, everyone! I’m super thrilled to be invited to the Ramblings From This Chick’s Xmas event. This year I wrote a short story around one of my favorite tropes: friends to lovers. Unfortunately, my upcoming release, Wicked, My Love, which is an enemies to hot lovers story, doesn’t come out until March. Sigh. No worries. I have a copy of Wicked Little Secrets to give away for the holidays to an awesome blog commenter in the United States or Canada. Enjoy! — Susanna Ives
Missy Toe. Kiss. Kiss.
Rural England, 1857
Willem’s horse didn’t require leading as it weaved through the woods to Daphne Fillmore’s home. The mare had taken this route almost every day for the last six months and knew it by heart. Its hooves crunched into the pristine snow that had fallen all morning and afternoon. Now, at the gloaming, the earth was as silent as an abbey and the leafless trees appeared like black bones against the snow and darkening sky.
The Fillmore’s Christmas’ Eve party would not get started for half an hour more, but Willem had worried about Daphne all day, so he drove ahead of his father and sister.
A distracted housekeeper let him in and left him stranded in the hall, which smelled of roasted goose, butter, fresh bread, and acrid smoke. Around him, Daphne’s home burst with frenetic activity, more so than usual. No Fillmore, in the long history of Fillmores, had ever been described as quiet and calm. All Daphne’s numerous sisters and brothers and their families were required to come home for the annual Christmas Eve party. Now most of them were gathered in a corner, loading a sparse, blackened tree with ribbons and gewgaws. Meanwhile, stable hands were busy draping fabric over what appeared to be an ugly brown smoke stain on the wall behind the tree. No one noticed Willem standing about, holding a handful of flowers. He wished they were daisies. Daphne loved yellow daises, but in the dead of winter, the best he could do was yellow pansies.
“The Christmas cake fell!” an anguished female voice cried from the parlor on Willem’s left. Daphne’s mother swept into the hall. “The Christmas cake has fallen! Could anything else go wrong? This is the very end, I tell you! Just… just.... blooming, bloody hell!” she cried and began to ascend the stairs.
“Mama!” Daphne sailed in from the back of the house with her nephew Harold on her hip, atop the bell of her skirt. “Stop using that language. Your grandchildren will hear!”
“Booming, boody ‘ell!” Harold repeated and then held out a mangled leaf in his tiny, chubby fingers. “Missy toe. Kiss. Kiss. Aunt Dabby.” He planted a big, wet, opened-mouth kiss on Daphne’s cheek and giggled.
She rolled her eyes. “Thank you, Harold,” she said in the tight, patient manner of someone forced to play the exciting missy toe game a hundred times or more.
Willem smiled to himself as he gazed at his friend. No painting or daguerreotype could capture the blur of motion that was Daphne. She was petite, standing no taller than five feet. Her heart-shaped face included a determined chin, bow-like lips, and large expressive eyes – the color of lush summer grass – that revealed her every passing emotion. Fine, silky blonde hair, which refused to curl, framed her high cheeks.
“Willem!” she cried, the first Fillmore to realize that he stood in their midst. “Thank heavens!”
She set down Harold with marching orders to “Go bother your mother with the mistletoe game.”
Harold wandered over to the Christmas tree, holding up his leaf. “Kiss. Kiss.”
Daphne grabbed Willem by his coat lapels and backed him into the parlor with the refreshments. “Thank God, you’ve come. I’m about to commit murder.”
“Holiday murders of passion are always the most gruesome,” he pointed out.
She pushed her blonde strands behind her ears. “The violin and flute players have contracted hives. The Christmas tree caught on fire an hour ago, and I strongly suspect that I’m closely related to the most annoying people in all Britain and…” she paused, her attention captured by the misshapen cake-like thing in the center of the table. “Good God, there’s a sinkhole in the Christmas cake. Quick, hand me your pansies.”
“What? You are not putting the pansy arrangement, which I labored over for two long minutes, on the cake. They are for you.”
“But they’re edible,” she protested and plucked off the blooms, sprinkling them into the frosted sinkhole. He looked on in mock horror.
“There,” she said. “Now it looks like something intended and not an awful mistake.” She smiled at him, bringing out her one dimple on her right cheek. “You are always such an obliging friend, so kindly bringing flowers when you knew the cake would fall.”
He playfully bumped her shoulder with his. “You know I will always be here for you.”
She bumped him back. “And I for you. Merry Christmas, my dearest friend.”
He clasped her hand, set it in the crook of his elbow, and led her to the sofa that had been pushed against the wall. “I’ve been worried about you. I read about Sir George’s wedding in the newspaper last evening. How are you holding up, old girl?”
She bit down on the edge of her lip. “I’m trying very hard to be the better person and wish him well. But…” Tears wet her eyes. She blinked them away. “But I’m afraid I’m not succeeding. You would think that after six months, the hurt would….but, no more about me. The vows have been spoken and, Heaven forbid, if I should stand in the way of a love more profound and deep than I could ever imagine.” She bitterly quoted the words Sir George used to end their secret engagement.
“What about you, dear friend?” she asked. “My heart hurts for you. I wish Papa hadn’t invited that vile, evil vixen and her parents. Yes, I know, I know, you told me to stop referring to Lady Marianna as vile, vixenish, troll-like, atrocious, insane, blacked-hearted, and a witch, but I can’t bear how she treated you. You, the kindest, most intelligent man I know.” She held up her hand, her fingers curled like an angry cat’s. “I will keep my claws retracted this evening. But it shall be difficult. Rwoerr.” She swiped his face, but instead of scratches, her touch was soft as feathers, comforting his taut nerves.
“The sign of a true friend,” he said.
Her expression turned somber again, her green eyes growing large with concern. “But in all seriousness, how are you?”
He nodded, feeling the old familiar pain that had been dragging down his heart and mind all these months. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I just don’t know. I want to see her as much as I don’t. I’ve practiced the words I would say, but it’s all pointless.”
Daphne laced her fingers through his. “You deserve better than her. All those beautiful letters you wrote her when you were deep in the hell of war. If I received such a letter, I would have boarded the first ship to Crimea and been a loyal companion in the trenches, mud, and disease. But my constitution is a bit stronger than your Lady Marianna, the lovely, delicate belladonna flower. To let you write her and then turn down your proposal after all you went through. It’s cruel.” She squeezed his hand, sending a wave of warmth through him. “I’m sorry she hurt you, Willem. I wish I could take the pain away. But you know I shall be here for you tonight should you need to talk or escape.”
“Thank you, that means a great deal,” he said and meant it.
He had never thought women and men could become close friends. Before the war, if he thought of Daphne at all, it was as a friend’s younger sister with whom he had exchanged maybe a dozen or so words. Then six months ago, he was wandering through the woods, turning over the dark thoughts he didn’t want to burden his family with – memories of war and the woman, whom he had loved all those years in Crimea, accepting the hand of another man. He was deep in painful rumination when he came across Daphne. She was violently yanking yellow daisies from the earth and muttering, “lying, cruel, blackguard.” He tried to sneak away undetected, but the crunch of a tiny branch under his foot gave him away. She raised her head. He remembered how valiantly she had tried to smile. He was trapped and forced to ask the mundane, obligatory questions, How was she doing? How was her brother? But when he asked why she was picking daisies that was one question to many. She clutched the stems to her chest. “Because they make me happy,” she stammered and broke into tears.
Against all the dictates of social etiquette, he embraced her. That afternoon their friendship was born of mutual sorrow. Almost every day since, they had met in the woods and just walked together, listening in sympathy to each other and saying words they couldn’t share with anyone else in the world.
“I have another gift for you,” he said, attempting to lift the sad lull that had fallen over them. “But you must not put it on the cake. Promise.”
“You ask too much. Oh, all right, I promise.”
He withdrew a small box from his coat and rested it in her palm. “For you, dear friend.”
She flashed him a gracious smile and whispered. “Thank you.”
He watched her profile as she opened the box and gasped when she spied the small yellow daisy brooch nestled in velvet. “One day, you will fall in love again and with a man worthy of you,” he told her. “And you will be happy.”
She pressed the brooch to her heart. Tears glistened in her eyes. “Oh, Willem. I hope so. I—“
“Missy toe. Kiss. Kiss.” Harold waddled in. He had rearmed himself with a fresh bunch of mistletoe.
“Where’s your mother?” Daphne demanded.
“Missy toe.” The little boy stomped his foot. “Kiss. Kiss.”
“I think we’ve been ordered,” Willem said. “I can’t disobey an order. It’s the soldier in me.”
She chuckled. He leaned in to give her a tiny, friendly peck. But when their lips met, he found hers to be warm and silken. Not the type of lips made for pecks but long, languid basks. The honeysuckle scent of her skin filled his senses, which had felt dulled for so long. She edged closer, her breasts brushing against his chest. A hot quiver raced down his body to his sex. She released a small humming sound and clasped his arm. Her lips opened under the pressure of his, letting him slipped inside her mouth, which tasted of cream and honey.
Stop, Willem, she’s your friend! What are you thinking?
He wasn’t thinking. That was the beauty of it. All he had done for months and months was think and ruminate. Her touch silenced his mind and brought his body to life. His pulse quickened and his cock started to–
“Booming, boody ell,” Harold said, staring at them with his large, infant eyes.
Daphne tore away. What just happened? Oh God, did she kiss, really kiss, her dearest friend?
She gazed at her hands, ungloved and clenched in her lap. Now, out of his arms, she was cold and that old ache, the dull throb in her heart, returned. But for a lovely moment, it had stopped. In that small time, she felt wanted again and happy. So happy. She slowly lifted her eyes, meeting his dark, cocoa ones. His lips were parted. A strand of chestnut-colored hair fell over his forehead.
“Daphne.” His voice was a shaken whisper, imbued with the same surprise, awe, and fear that she felt.
“Guests are coming up the drive!” her mother yelled from upstairs. “Guests are coming up the drive!” The house reverberated with the trample of the Fillmore herd assembling in the opposite parlor.
Daphne continued to stare at Willem, her chest rising and falling with her rapid breath. After several painful, oh-god-what-have-we-done seconds had passed, he rose.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen.” He slicked his hands down his handsome face. It’s been…it’s been a long time.”
Thoughts flew in and out of her head, such as, I never experienced such a powerful kiss, I’m scared by how out-of-control I feel. But you love another woman. Those words were too raw and close to the bone, to utter. All she could muster was “I sh-should help Mama.”
She scooped up Harold and rushed to join her family. Willem took a place by her side. Her body heated at his proximity. She could feel the flush rising from her neck and burning across her cheeks.
Did she feel something more for Willem than friendship? Could she possibly fall in love again? With him?
Naturally, after these thoughts was the perfect time for Lady Marianna, the evil troll vixen who had destroyed Willem’s heart, to make her entrance behind her papa, Earl of Dalford and his wife. Lady Marianna’ silvery blue dress was cut low, revealing her creamy shoulders and the rise of her breasts. Her glossy, dark brown hair fell in beautiful locks about her lovely face.
Daphne hated her with a deep-seated, vengeful hate worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Mrs. Fillmore greeted the earl’s family with the congenial countenance that she saved for callers, as if she had napped for the entire afternoon, leisurely dressed, and breezed into the parlor at the same time the guests arrived. All the while, Lady Marianna’s beautiful eyes, which slanted exotically up at the edges, drifted to Willem.
She crossed to him as soon as obligatory niceties were performed.
“Good evening,” she said quietly, gazing up at him from beneath her lashes. An alluring vision.
Daphne heard Willem suck his breath. She wanted to scream but you just kissed me at the same time she desired to run her fingernails down Lady Marianna’s lovely face. Instead, she clenched her jaw and smiled, all the while mentally repeating, evil vixen troll witch.
At that opportune moment, Harold held out his mistletoe to Lady Marianna. “Missy toe. Kiss. Kiss.”
Lady Marianna laughed, silvery and musical, and tossed her curls. “What a little darling, you are,” she told Harold, giving his belly a tickle. But she poised her cheek for Willem to kiss, not Harold. Willem paused, uncertainty on his features, and then gave her a discreet, polite kiss. Daphne gazed on, still smiling, still stuck in that horrible chasm between heartbreak and violent anger.
“May I talk to you?” Lady Marianna asked Willem in a quiet, fragile voice. “Please.”
Just leave him alone, you wicked piece of baggage. Haven’t you hurt him enough?
But Willem, ever the gentleman, bowed and consented. Lady Marianna wrapped her hand around his elbow, ushering him toward the Christmas tree loaded down with hundreds of ribbons and gaudy knick-knacks to conceal the charred branches. Willem gazed over his shoulder at Daphne. She felt as if he were trying to tell her something with his eyes. She couldn’t decipher his silent plea, but she was certain it didn’t say, forget the part about retracting your claws and come tear this vicious vixen to pieces as she would have liked.
“I’m here for you,” she said quietly.
Daphne’s elder sister Cassandra appeared by her side. “How very, very interesting,” she said in low, silky tones as she watched Willem and Lady Marianna. “I just received a letter last week from my friend in London. It seems Lady Marianna’s dashing viscount had some complications of an ungentlemanly nature regarding certain actresses.” The arch in her voice bespoke a hundred unsaid words. “The on dits is Lady Marianna’s engagement has been discretely dissolved.”
Hot, black heat rushed to Daphne’s head. She reached for the wall to steady herself and Harold. The woman Willem loved was free.
Across the room, Marianna still clutched Willem’s arm, her ravishing eyes misting as she spoke. Daphne could only imagine the words falling from Lady Marianna’s pretty mouth, I’ve been so foolish. Please forgive me. Please say your feelings for me are unchanged.
Willem patted Marianna’s hand, compassion crinkling his eyes. Oh no! No! He couldn’t take her back. Then there would be no need for Daphne anymore. No more long walks sharing their hearts’ secrets. No more kisses that made her think she was ready to love again, now, when it was too late.
“Are you all right?” Her sister asked her.
“Pardon me,” Daphne stammered. “I must take Harold to the nursery before more guests arrive.”
All the way up the stairs, Harold repeated, “Missy toe. Kiss. Kiss. Aunt Dabby,” and waved his mistletoe in Daphne’s face.
“No more of this wretched game, Harold.”
“Booming, boody ‘ell, no.”
She left Harold with a fraught nurse and a passel of his wild toddling cousins to kiss, and then locked herself in her chamber. Outside her window, the full moon and the fresh white snow turned the night a luminous blue. How ironic that this Christmas’ Eve, the worst of her life, would be so breath-taking beautiful.
She gazed down at the daisy brooch, and Willem’s words echoed in her head. “You will fall in love again and with a man worthy of you.” She rubbed the yellow petals, a sickening feeling in her belly. Was she falling in love again? Why when she would only get hurt?
It was just a kiss, stupid. Just a lovely, passionate, soul-stirring kiss.
She should be happy for Willem. He was her dearest friend and if that evil troll vixen made him happy, shouldn’t she be happy for him?
“I’m happy,” she said, practicing the words she would say to him, except without the broken, hollow ring. “I’m so very, very happy.”
All right, I’m not. I’m miserable.
But, by God, she was going to pretend for her friend’s sake that she was overjoyed and certainly not falling in love with him.
She crossed to her commode where her gloves waited for her. She should call a maid to help her with the tight creations, but she wanted to be alone with her thoughts. For the next few minutes, she tugged, pulled, and cursed, until the blessed things were on.
The sounds of the puny orchestra drifted up the stairs as she descended. The first dance of the evening had already started when she re-entered the parlor. Daphne halted in her progress. In the center of the dance floor, Willem and Marianna waltzed. Marianna smiled and gazed lovingly into his eyes. They appeared to be lost in their own lovely world, as if the rest of the room, including Daphne, had dissolved away.
I’m so happy for you, she whispered.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her father conversing to the young curate and gesturing to Daphne. Oh Lord, she didn’t have the strength to dance. She spun on her heel and headed to the back of the house. In the scullery, she shoved her feet into her muddy boots and grabbed her old gardening coat from the peg and headed out into the wintry night.
She felt numb as she stared up at the stars through the tree branches. Last Sunday’s sermon was about how Christmas was a glimmer of hope in the deep winter. But she didn’t feeling any hope. She couldn’t bear to watch Willem holding the troll vixen witch. It would take all her strength to wish him merry when he told her that Marianna had come back to him. Meanwhile, in London, Sir George was honeymooning with his new wife, sharing a love more profound and deep than she could ever imagine.
“Daphne,” she heard Willem call softly. “It’s too cold. You need to come inside before you catch a chill.”
She took a deep, steeling breath and turned. “I’m so happy for you,” she cried, wishing her voice hadn’t cracked with hurt.
She couldn’t read his face. It was hidden in the shadows. He seemed different, not like her comfy friend. Suddenly, she didn’t know what to do with her hands, how to look at him, or what to say.
“Daphne, I’m sorry—“
“I forgot to give you your Christmas gift,” she cut in before he could say that he was sorry about their kiss and how seeing Marianna again brought back his old feelings. She reached into her corset and drew out the handkerchief she had embroidered for him. Small gold daisies and green, leafy vines. “I know it’s small, but it’s something you can keep with you always. A reminder of our friendship.”
He turned the cloth over and over, examining the lines, “You made each little stitch yourself.”
He continued to study her gift, running his finger along the chains of thread. “I think I’m falling in love again,” he said slowly, quietly. “But if that does not please you…If my intentions are–”
“Lady Marianna is beautiful,” Daphne said. “You look so lovely together. Don’t let me calling her a malicious, fiendish trollop from hades stop you. I-I was jesting. I’m sure she is a lovely person deep, deep, deep down inside somewhere. I just need to get to know her better. Which I will because I’m your loyal and constant friend.”
He raised a brow and lowered the other. That comical expression had always made her laugh, and even now, as her already broken heart was disintegrating into tiny bits, it still elicited a chuckle.
“That is why I think I’m falling in love again,” he said, his handsome features easing to their normal positions. “With you.”
“I understand. How could you not resist a beau—Wait! Did you say you were falling in love with me? Me? Daphne Ernestina Fillmore?”
“Yes, my loyal and constant friend,” he gazed at her, his dark eyes filled with love and another emotion. Fear. “C-could you find in your heart to love me too?”
After all the hurt and pain she had known these last months, his words seemed unreal. She knew their meaning, but couldn’t comprehend them. Did the most wonderful man in the world truly love her?
“But you adore Lady Marianna.” She shook her head. “You’ve loved her all that time in the war.”
“Then why did I spend the entire dance thinking about our kiss? She said all the things I wanted to hear a month ago, oh hell, twelve hours ago, but all I could think was you. And then you left me to dance with her. I looked for you. Why did you leave me?”
Her chin began to quiver. He wanted her. He was falling in love with her. She pressed her trembling hand to her mouth as tears streamed down.
The beautiful light left his eyes. “I see that you don’t return my feelings.” He stepped back, his head bowed. “Please forgive me. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Willem, my dearest friend, look up.” She pointed to a bundle of leaves nestled on a branch. “Missy toe,” she cried, drawing him into her arms. “Kiss. Kiss, my love.”
It's Not Easy Being Good...
Vivacious Vivienne Taylor has finally won her family's approval by getting engaged to the wealthy and upright John Vandergrift. But when threatened by a vicious blackmail scheme, it is to her childhood friend that Vivienne turns; the deliciously wicked Viscount Dashiell.
When Being Wicked is so Much More Exciting...
Lord Dashiell promised himself long ago that his friendship with Vivienne would be the one relationship with a woman that he wouldn't ruin. He agrees to help her just to keep the little hothead safe, but soon finds that Vivienne has grown up to be very, very dangerous to all of Dash's best intentions.
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