A Reunion on Christmas Eve - Miranda Neville
Miranda Neville grew up in England but she has lived in Vermont for many years. She is the author of seven historical romances and a novella for Avon Books, plus a novella in the anthology At The Duke's Wedding. Her cat Ernie has all the talent on the family and starred in a book trailer.
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In July I published a book set at Christmas, Lady Windermere’s Lover. The sequel, The Duke of Dark Desires, takes place mostly in the summer, despite it’s December 30th publication date. Oops. Though not strictly a reunion, this scene from Lady Windermere’s Lover shows an estranged husband and wife who have just had a colossal fight. Lord and Lady Windermere leave a fashionable Christmas party to visit a poor part of London where, Cynthia reveals to Damian, she maintains a house full of women and children. The spirit of Christmas begins to bring about the reunion of the couple.
When everyone else had received their gifts, Cynthia unwrapped a silver tissue package to reveal a blob of fine lace.
“It’s for Hannah,” she said with a rueful smile, placing the tiny cap on the baby’s head. “I know it’s impractical, Aggie, but the minute I saw it I had to buy it. I couldn’t resist. Doesn’t she look perfect?”
Damian stepped closer to look at the little red face in its white frill and at his wife’s tender gaze. “She looks like Lady Ashfield,” he whispered in Cynthia’s ear. She gave a repressed snort at the private joke and elbowed him in the ribs.
Aggie fingered the lace with reverence. “It’s too fine for the streets around here, my lady. She’ll only wear it at home.”
“You and the other Spitalfields weavers make the finest silks in the world,” Cynthia argued. “Why should you not enjoy wearing beautiful things too?”
“Thank you, my lady. You are very good to us. You too, my lord.” Aggie was grateful but he thought he detected a skepticism she kept hidden from her benefactress. He strongly suspected the piece of lace would find its way to a pawnbroker as soon as the infant grew out of it. And why not? He appreciated Aggie’s practicality as much as his wife’s frivolity and the sentiment behind it. Life was always better for a little pure beauty, and it was likely that the denizens of East London had little enough of it in theirs. Cynthia had brought great joy to her household of women and children this Christmas Day. Later he would discover how far her charity extended beyond the provision of the life’s unnecessary but delightful frills. Very far indeed, he suspected.
She should have children of her own. For the first time he felt an inkling of interest in procreation beyond the duty to produce an heir. This visit to these humble premises made him think of a family life with Cynthia. A broad smile stretched his lips. He was suddenly very interested in procreation.
Young Tom stood beside him with an air of distaste while the others cooed over the lace-bedecked infant.
“It must be hard to be the only man in the house among all these girls,” Damian said quietly. “It’s a good thing they have you to keep an eye on the little ones.”
Tom puffed out his chest. “I’m the only boy except Puddin’ and ’e’s too small to be much help.”
“The ladies like to make a fuss about things, don’t they?”
Puzzled for a moment by the use of a term of gentility, he grasped that Damian meant the other inhabitants of the house. “Aye, m’lord. That they do.”
“See those greens over the fireplace? There’s one branch with white berries. That’s mistletoe, you know.”
Tom extracted the branch in question from a clump of fir. “Can I eat them?”
“I don’t recommend it. They’d taste bitter and give you a pain in the stomach.“
“What’s it for then?”
“At Yuletide anyone is permitted to kiss anyone else if they stand beneath a sprig of the stuff.”
“I can think of a few fellows that’d pay me for this. And some others who don’t need it to get what they want.” The boy’s canny look said that while he might not know much about traditions, his surroundings hadn’t left him ignorant of the basic facts of life. The infants in the house weren’t products of divine intervention.
“I was thinking the ladies here would like to exchange Christmas kisses.”
“Not me,” Tom said firmly.
“Of course not. But we must humor them. Why don’t you hop up on that chair and invite them? You can hold the mistletoe up high and avoid danger of having to participate.”
Laughing, Tom scrambled onto the seat. “It’s kissing time,” he piped, arousing a chorus of laughter.
The mothers all knew what to do. A squealing exchange of feminine bussing ensued, with Lady Windermere taking fervent part. The shy older girls won smiles and hugs from their patroness but Cynthia’s greatest enthusiasm was reserved for the babes in arms. He’d give her an infant of her own to cuddle and coo over. But before that blessed event another one (or dozen or hundred) must occur.
Tom proved an admirable lieutenant, not even requiring the half-crown bribe Damian had planned. “What about you, guv? Ain’t you going to kiss ’Er Ladyship too?” The boy was going to get his money honestly. “The nippers expect it. They’ve never seen a lord before. Seein’ a lord and lady kissin’ would be a rare treat.”
“Never let it be said I failed in my duty. My lady?” He held out his hand. Blushing, she met his eye over the lace-capped head of Aggie’s baby. While he could admit that the infant was endearing, she was also very much de trop. “Give her to me,” he said firmly. The child seemed absurdly light in his arms and terrifyingly fragile. He handed her quickly to her mother, who winked at him. Good girl, that Aggie. “My lady?”
The assembly of women smirked. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, Tom brandished the mistletoe. With a martyrish air Cynthia took up position. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint the children.”
Damian smiled wolfishly. “Let us not do so then.” Her shoulders stiffened beneath his hands. “Relax,” he whispered, stroking her tender collarbones with his thumbs. “We’ve done this before. Forget that we have an audience.” The perfect mouth formed a mesmerizing O of surprise.
“I thought the only reason we are doing this is to please our audience.” The warm scent of roses flooded his senses. He wished they were somewhere else and alone together. His head buzzed with desire and he couldn’t for the life of him remember why they hadn’t spent the last twenty-four hours in bed, making love. All suspicions, accusations, and quarrels seemed unimportant in the face of his need to possess his wife. She was his and he intended to keep her. Her eyes reflected vulnerability and fear but his throat was tight with longing. He couldn’t form the words to reassure her.
“It will please me too,” he said on a breath. The feeble phrase gave no sense of the brew of resentment, forgiveness, and tenderness he wished to convey. Those emotions were for examination at a calmer time when he wasn’t overwhelmed by bone-deep, searing lust. But for now …
His fingers skimmed over her gauze sleeves, too fine to disguise the warmth of her skin. Taking one tight fist in both hands he carefully unfurled her fingers. Soft, pretty hands with pearly pink nails. His thumbs traced the lines crossing her palms, another detail about his wife that he intended to explore at length and at leisure. He dropped a lingering kiss into the very center. At her sharp intake of breath he raised his eyes to hers, still wary but softer. Damn their audience.
Keeping the hand in one of his, his other descended to her waist, following the curves beneath their layers of silk, to the sweetest rounded bottom in the history of the world. Lowering his eyelids for a moment, he recalled her naked. Pray God, soon.
“Kiss ’er, guv!”
The sooner he did his duty, the sooner they could leave. It wasn’t as though he didn’t wish to, hadn’t been planning it for the past half hour. He let her go, but only to frame her heart-shaped face between his palms, closed his eyes, and brought their mouths together. Her sweet, pliant lips invited him to invade with all his pent-up desire. But they weren’t alone and there were children present, so he kept it shallow, little more than an exchange of breath. Though it drove him to the brink of losing control, he didn’t want their tenuous contact to end. He held her head still, until it dawned on him that she wasn’t trying to escape him but to kiss him back. A bold dart of her tongue along his inner lip sent blood roaring into his already lively cock. Abruptly he let her go and she swayed. Her eyes were big and dreamy.
“It’s time we took our leave, Cynthia,” he said.
Rebellious Julian Fortescue never expected to inherit a dukedom, nor to find himself guardian to three young half-sisters. Now in the market for a governess, he lays eyes on Jane Grey and knows immediately she is qualified--to become his mistress. Yet the alluring woman appears impervious to him. Somehow Julian must find a way to make her succumb to temptation . . . without losing his heart and revealing the haunting mistakes of his past.
Lady Jeanne de Falleron didn't seek a position as a governess simply to fall into bed with the Duke of Denford. Under the alias of Jane Grey, she must learn which of the duke's relatives is responsible for the death of her family--and take her revenge. She certainly can't afford the distraction of her darkly irresistible employer, or the smoldering desire he ignites within her.
But as Jane discovers more clues about the villain she seeks, she's faced with a possibility more disturbing than her growing feelings for Julian: What will she do if the man she loves is also the man she's sworn to kill?
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