Wendy LaCapra has been reading romance since she sneaked into the adult section at the library and discovered Victoria Holt & Jane Aiken Hodge. From that point on, she dreamed of creating fictional worlds with as much richness, intrigue and passion as she found within those books. Her stories have placed in several contests, including the 2012 Golden Heart®. She lives in NYC with her husband and loves to hear from readers.
An Unexpected Visitor on Christmas Eve with Wendy LaCapra
I’m thrilled to join some of my favorite authors celebrating the Christmas season on Ramblings From This Chick. I’ve loved the stories so far, haven’t you? Christmas is such a special time—a time to reflect on the best of holidays past, a time to celebrate the joy of the present, and a time to anticipate the love that will fill Christmases yet to come.
My theme is an unexpected visitor on Christmas Eve. For this story, we rejoin Thea Marie, Duchess of Wynchester (also known as Duchess Decadence) on the Christmas Eve. For those of you have not yet had an introduction to Her Grace, let me fill you in. Thea’s arraigned marriage was not all that it could have been. Following a tragedy, the Duke and the Duchess spent years estranged—with the duke retreating behind a steely exterior and the duchess joining two other ‘fallen’ ladies (The Furies) who supported themselves by throwing illegal gambling parties. However, in Duchess Decadence danger brings the duke and duchess back together and a reunion that begins in reluctance turns into forgiveness and, finally, love. This Christmas story is set following the end of Duchess Decadence, but preceding the book’s epilogue.
Thea Marie Worthington, Duchess of Wynchester leaned over the servant’s stair and inhaled the aroma of a Christmas eve feast…her gift to the household staff who had done so much to create a true home of drafty Wynterhill. The scent—spices, yeast, dried fruits, roasting goose, cider, and ale—curled around her like a contented feline, warm and comforting.
And today of all days she needed comfort…reassurance to get her through the lonely night to come.
She’d had grand plans to make merry with the duke, her friends Sophia and Lavinia and their husband. This Christmas the three ladies once known derisively as The Furies could truly celebrate, raising a glass to each other and to the men they loved. Weather, however, had prevented coach travel, and so Thea Marie had canceled the planned feast.
It was for the best, of course. The past week had seen days and nights so cold Thea’s breath lingered in visible wisps whenever she gone outside. And, after Mrs. Wheaton, her housekeeper, heard the coal monger’s dire descriptions of ice-covered roads, she fretted about the danger to Thea and her unborn child until Thea had no choice but to send word she could not take the carriage.
Had Thea’s concern been solely with herself, she would have attempted the journey. London was little more than a day’s travel, after all. And the promise of being safely ensconced in her husband’s arms was strong temptation.
She leaned back against the doorway, placed her hand over her growing stomach and sighed, “Wyn,” her name for her husband, “I know you will understand.”
A softly chiding clucking noise sounded from above. Thea opened her eyes, sending Mrs. Wheaton a sheepish smile.
“What would Bates say if he caught you hovering around the servant’s stair?” the housekeeper asked.
He’d be scandalized. Bates was a proper butler. Thea changed the subject. “The kitchens smell divine.”
“They do. Everyone is looking forward to this eve.” A shadow passed over Mrs. Wheaton. “Have you reconsidered? No one should be alone on Christmas eve.”
“It cannot be helped, I am afraid,” Thea replied.
Mrs. Wheaton hesitated. “You’d be most welcome to join us below stairs.”
Thea smile turned warm. “I suspect my presence would have a rather dampening effect on the festivities.”
“Never you mind,” Wheaton said with a scowl, joining Thea on the landing.
Thea reached out and touched the older woman’s arm. “Please,” she said. “I will take a tray in my room, as planned. A room which, by the way, has been made very festive with the evergreen boughs you had arranged above the mantle.”
Wheaton’s lips did not level. “It was the least I could do.”
“I won’t be alone,” she said, with a pat to her stomach. She affected a yawn with dramatic flair. “No more protest. I am so easily weary these days. I will enjoy the rest.”
She allowed Wheaton to bundle her up the stairs and into her bedchamber. A short while later, Wheaton delivered Thea’s comforting favorite—a pie of potatoes and meat—which she’d decorated by surrounded the edges with an artful arrangement of holly sprigs. When Thea finished her meal, she tucked one of the holly sprigs into her hair, settled into her favorite chair and snug by the warmth emanating from the hearth, began a soft song to her unborn babe—a centuries-old celebration of the wonder and miracle of hope in the form of a child, sleeping softly in a manger.
Wynterhill. Wynchester snorted. The ducal home’s name had never before been more apt. Frost made snow-like patterns on the stable windows, lit by the silver glow of the moon. The ice Wynchester had seen in the past two days could have stocked his icehouse for a decade of summers.
As he made slow progress along treacherous roads, even the blood in his veins had congealed—or so it seemed. And every time the cold challenged him to turn back—he’d pressed on, imagining the happy surprise in Thea’s eyes. He’d suffered through many a holiday without Thea Marie, and—now, especially—a little discomfort would not keep him from his wife.
She would already be in his arms, in fact, but after —only after the God-awful weather his horse had endured, it was only right he join Countway, his stable master, in rubbing down his intrepid mare, and settling her in for the night. He’d never been more grateful for her dogged determination.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call a footman to assist you upstairs?” Countway asked.
Wynchester glanced up to the window that housed his duchess, watching the orange glow of light dance on the ceiling. Disturbing the servants would only prolong their separation. And since he’d stopped for warmth and repast only a few hours before, it would be a shame to end the music laughter and revelry emanating from the kitchens.
“There’s no need to interrupt the celebrations.” He clapped a hand on the head groom’s shoulder. “If you don’t mind lending a hand with my boots.”
Countway’s eyes slid past the duke and up to the duchess’s window. He grunted and then led the way into the main hall. After a brief boot-struggle, Countway disappeared back into the night, murmuring, “You’d think they was newlyweds.”
Wynchester wiggled his toes in his stocking feet and donned a mischievous smile. If the closeness he shared with his duchess could be prolonged by acting like a newlywed, he’d do so until the end of his days. With more warmth in his heart than he’d felt in days, Wynchester crept up the stairs, boots in hand. He paused outside her door, listening to her sing a seasonal lullaby.
Quickly, he forced down the coalescing lump in his throat. He would not think of the years he and Thea Marie had spent apart—tonight he’d think only of the glorious present and a future he sometimes doubted he deserved.
He placed his boots on the floor, inhaled for courage and opened the door.
“I told you,” a gentle scold thread through her voice, “to enjoy the revelries.”
Wynchester crossed to her chair. “How could I,” he asked in a low baritone, “when you are the very source of my joy?”
“Wyn!” she exclaimed.
“Shh,” he lowered to his haunches and grasped the chair for support, “there’s no need for you to rise.”
“But how did you get here? …The roads are impassible!”
He ran his finger down her cheek, which was flushed from surprise and, he hoped, happiness.
“Impassible for a carriage, perhaps, but no match for a steady horse and a determined husband. Did you think a little ice was going to keep me from you this holiday?”
Her yes, though unspoken, was given away by a sheen glossing her eyes. His precious duchess. Did she not yet understand the depth of his devotion?
She blinked and sniffed and the last of his chill dissipated as she smiled.
“Dear me,” she said, wiping her eyes. “You must abhor such a show of sentiment. I do apologize. I…”
He cupped her face. “I may have once, but that was before you showed me how much I’d been missing.”
He silenced any response with a kiss. Her lips were warm, and their slight tremble was his undoing.
“I’m here, darling. And,” he pulled two small boxes from his coat pocket and deposited them in her lap, “I come bearing gifts. The Furies could not be here in person, so they sent tokens of their affection.”
Her grin deepened as she unwrapped the box from her friend Lavinia—knitted boots for the coming babe. Next, she opened the box from Sophia. A blush spread over her cheeks and then she laughed out loud.
He peered into the box. “Leaves and white berries?”
She stifled a giggle. “Sophia sent mistletoe.”
He frowned. “Are they good to eat?”
She laughed, setting it aside. “No. It’s just a bit of silliness on Sophia’s part. I should have known the Furies would not forget me.”
“Of course not.” He tucked a stray bit of hair behind her ear. “But I confess I’d rather have you all to myself.”
“Your Christmas wish has been granted,” she teased.
“And so it has,” he replied. “But did you really believe I would leave you alone?”
Thea’s natural response was to tell him she would not have wanted him to put himself—or his horse—at risk. But as she gazed into his eyes—deep, brown, solid and reassuring—she knew his question encompassed more than just this night.
Not so long ago, she believed she would never trust him again. They’d suffered the tragic loss of her first pregnancy, following an attack on their home during the Gordon Riots. He’d not been home; she’d faced the mob alone.
But since then, she’d grown to understand. To forgive. To see him for the man he’d become, not the man he’d been. And, finally, to dream again of a family and a future.
There, in his eyes, she read his sacred vow. He would do anything to protect her and their future family.
Had she believed he’d leave her alone? No. His arrival, though unexpected, had not been a true surprise.
“I should not have doubted,” she blinked away her blur, “And I will not do so again.”
His sigh sounded as if it had come directly from his heart. He gathered her into his arms and carried her—boxes still open in her lap—over to the bed. Gently, he removed Lavinia’s gift, placing the booties on the bedside table. Then, he lifted the mistletoe from the box and hung it over the headboard.
He plucked a berry.
“They are not to eat,” she said urgently.
He sent her a mock frown. “Pick a berry, present it to a lady and she must grant a kiss. An ancient yuletide custom, I believe.”
“You knew all along!” she accused.
He cleared his throat. “I am waiting…”
She accepted the berry and lifted her lips to his. The brush of warm skin against skin left her tingling to her toes.
“There are a great many berries,” she said, invitation in her eyes.
“Remind me to thank Sophia,” he said, plucking a second berry and then claiming his reward against her parted lips. “I predict a long and happy night.”
Below stairs, the sounds of revelry continued until the black night turned grey. All the while, the duke and his duchess remained snug in their bed…though, as Christmas eve turned to Christmas day, the light revealed a garland of mistletoe bereft of berries and a ducal couple shockingly bereft of clothes.
Tucked within the duke’s arm, the duchess rubbed her cheek against his shoulder.
“Happy Christmas, Wyn.”
He kissed her and laid his hand over her belly.
“The happiest I’ve ever known,” he murmured as they both drifted off to sleep.
Thea Worthington, Duchess of Wynchester divides her time between social engagements and playing her luck against fickle fortune. Yet every gamble is only a bluff—a means to hide from the pain deep within her, and the loss of a babe she never held in her arms. Now Thea's luck is about to run out. Her estranged husband has returned and seeks a reunion...Plagued with guilt over what happened to his wife three years ago, the Duke of Wynchester has kept his distance. The duke is resolved to piece his family back together, especially now that he's discovered his beloved brother—long thought dead—still lives. But Thea's lovely, porcelain facade is on the verge of cracking...spurred on by the duke's brother's secretive, malevolent animosity.With everything riding on her future, Thea plays a daring game of chance for love and her marriage...and this time, the dice are most certainly rigged.
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