A Regency Christmas
A Little Christmas
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A Little Christmas
Tending to a houseful of grieving relatives isn’t Viscount Selwick’s idea of a merry Christmas.
But one stolen kiss under the mistletoe with spirited Sophia Pettibone is about to change everything!
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Near Greystoke, Cumberland
December 17, 1818
“The vultures are gathering, my lord.” The butler, a stiff elderly man with a fine mane of silver-grey hair, said and handed him a toddy.
“Have they all arrived, then, Potter?” Viscount Sebastian Selwick asked. He stood in the library of Windsong Hall, warming his hands by the fire. He could not seem to chafe the chill from his bones, which was only partly caused by the coolness in the air. The rest, dash it all, was caused by the task ahead.
“Mr. and Mrs. Evans have come with their servants. I have put them in the east wing. Mr. Jonathan Arbuthnot arrived early this morning, and is in the south wing. And, most recently, Mrs. Emma Grant along with her son, Master George, also in the east wing.”
Sebastian wondered if Potter had a reason for the room assignments. Quarrelling parties that had to be separated? He wished, not for the first time, that he knew more about the family. “How many have yet to come?”
“I believe only Miss Sophia Pettibone. I have had the servants prepare a room for her in the south wing.”
“Ah, yes. The spinster niece.” He glanced over his shoulder to the window and the midday gloom. There must be a storm gathering. “Should we send someone along the road to see if she is stuck?”
Potter shrugged. “Surely she will not be long. We can send someone out if she has not arrived by supper, sir.”
Supper. Sebastian sighed. He’d have to get through luncheon first. He did not relish sitting down with a table of strangers and breaking bread. He’d much rather be toasting by the fire in his library in London, dodging the merry-makers and well-wishers.
At least he would not have to worry about merry-making here. All he had to do was inventory the personal effects, supervise the interment of Mr. Oliver Pettibone, read the will to the gathered heirs, and return to his blissfully quiet life in London. Only one thing troubled him.
“Why does this particular part of Mr. Pettibone’s will have to be carried out at Windsong Hall? Would not London have done as well?”
“It was his last request, sir. It had always been his intention to return to England once he retired, and that is why he acquired Windsong Hall.” Potter paused to clear his throat before continuing, and Sebastian wondered if he was still grieving for his employer. “Thus, when he learned that he was, er, dying, and would never occupy Windsong Hall, he expressed his desire that his funeral and the reading of his will take place here, as soon as may be after his demise.”
As much sense as that made, Sebastian still resented the inconvenience of a trip to Cumberland for the sole reasons that he was the eldest son of Oliver Pettibone’s also deceased partner and had read for law at Cambridge. And, perhaps, that he would feel guilty if he disrespected his own father’s memory. He sighed. “Families…”
“They are a great deal of trouble, sir. Not for everyone, I think,” Potter agreed somberly.
Certainly not for Sebastian, at any rate. After his father remarried a woman with three daughters, there had never again been a moments peace in the house. And it only worsened after his father died. He’d rather face Napoleon’s army than his step-mother and step-sisters in high dudgeon.
He sipped his toddy, relaxing as the hot brew worked to loosen the knot that had formed in his stomach. “And the remains?” he asked Potter in a sigh.
“They should arrive tomorrow, sir. Or the next day. The London dispatcher assured me he would act with all due haste.”
Drat! He was stuck at Windsong until Mr. Pettibone’s remains arrived. There was nothing yet to bury in the frozen cemetery overlooking the valley, and the will could not be read until afterward. At least he could use the interim to perform the sorting of Pettibone’s personal belongings.
The luncheon bell rang and he finished his toddy in one large gulp, fortifying himself. The time had come to deal with the task at hand—the gathering of the family. He squared his shoulders and headed for the dining room.
God save him from families.
After introductions, they were seated and the soup, an excellent chicken bisque, was served. Stilted at first, the conversation soon turned to the only absent guest.
“It does not surprise me, My lord, that she has not arrived in a timely fashion. Why, I shall be surprised if she arrives at all.” Mrs. Marjory Evans proclaimed over her bowl.
Unpredictable, Sebastian gathered.
“An unconventional gel,” her husband, Thomas, agreed. “Never biddable—she jilted a duke, you know—and disaster follows her everywhere.”
Mr. Arbuthnot, a handsome blade from London who seemed to be annoyed by nearly everything, sniffed as if he smelled something vaguely unpleasant. “Really, Thomas? I hardly think you’d be impartial. The duke was not the only suitor she refused if I recall.”
“Are you implying I was Thomas’s second choice, Jonathan?” Mrs. Evans asked with an arched eyebrow.
“I am implying, Marjory, that Thomas is perhaps not Sophia’s most impartial critic. As for her jilts, I seem to recall some twaddle about her not wishing to be ‘controlled.’ Sophie would not be a spinster if she did not want it so.”
Sebastian clenched his jaw, steeling himself for another week or two of bickering. Since the family could not be relied upon for an impartial description, he tried to recall what he’d been told about Miss Sophia Pettibone.
The sole surviving child of Oliver Pettibone’s older brother, Miss Sophia had been taken to live with her mother’s side of the family when she was quite young. Later, there had been some scandal in London—likely the jilt Mr. Evans had just mentioned. He’d heard the words headstrong, odd, and exotic. Put them together with unbiddable, unpunctual, scandalous and disastrous and he couldn’t imagine such a creature. She was bound to be trouble, that much was certain, and he couldn’t abide troublesome women. He wondered if the groomsmen he’d sent out had found them yet.
“I was just making the point that we cannot expect anything ordinary from her,” Mrs. Evans said under her breath. “I warrant that she will be without a chaperone when she arrives.”
“You shall see, My lord, and I do not envy you having to deal with her,” the usually shy Mrs. Emma Grant added.
“Hm,” was his only reply as he stood and dropped his napkin on his chair. With a slight bow in the ladies’ direction, he left the room. If the woman was going to be that much trouble, perhaps he ought to help the footmen look for her. Nothing would happen to the chit while he was responsible for events at Windsong Hall.
Sophia Pettibone scrubbed her gloved hand across the frosted coach window as she tried to peer out at the countryside. Her excitement was growing. How lovely it would be to see her father’s side of the family again. Yes, this would undoubtedly be an opportunity to build a relationship with them. They so rarely saw each other that they were not exactly what she would call ‘close,’ but she had longed to feel that way. To belong to something larger than herself. She sighed and put her melancholy thoughts away.
“I have heard the Lake District is the loveliest landscape in all the empire,” she told her maid. “I brought my paints along. At the very least, I shall do some sketches to complete later.”
“Aye, Miss. I warrant there’ll be plenty o’ spare time, but what could you find to paint with the leaves gone and everything so cold and bleak?”
“Bleak? Do you not see beauty in the winter sky? The patterns of frost and the pristine blanket of falling snow? I am fascinated by the way the bare branches of trees etch a silhouette against the gray.” Sophia caught the hand strap attached to the inside wall to steady herself when the coach rocked as it hit a rut. “Goodness! Hold tight, Janie! I hope the rest of our trip will not be so rough.”
“We must be nearly there, Miss. The groom at the last inn said ‘twould only be a few hours. We have already missed lunch, I fear.”
Before Sophia could answer, the coach lurched and began to slip sideways. “Heavens!” She raised her voice and shouted to the driver. “What has happened, sir? Have we broken a wheel?” And just then, as slowly and easily as you please, the coach tipped over on its side.
Sophia reached for Janie and pulled her against her chest to cushion the girl’s fall. They landed with bruising force against the door. Sophie prayed that the window would not break and cut them. Her knee had jammed into the door latch and a sharp pain shot through leg. She and Janie scrambled to right themselves and held on to each other in the dim light afforded by the single dingy window above them. Janie was moaning and shaking, and Sophia prayed she would not give in to hysteria.
Suddenly there was more shouting than could be accounted for by her driver and footman, but the sound was muffled by snow and the position of the coach. “Miss? Miss! Is everyone all right?” her driver called.
“We’re whole, sir!” she called. “Can you pull us out?”
The coach rocked as someone stepped up on the axle and a moment later the door above them was thrown open. The silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders appeared above them—black against the gray sky and not their driver from the size of him.
He reached down with a gloved hand for her but she slapped at the insistent reach and nudged her nearly hysterical maid. “Take Janie first, please.” The poor girl was in such a state that Sophie couldn’t leave her in the coach alone.
The man hoisted the plump maid without the slightest difficulty and they disappeared, no doubt to examine Janie for injuries. She held her breath as the coach slid sideways again and she pressed her lips together to keep from crying out. Oh, pray the coach was not perched on the edge of a cliff!
“Hold the axle!” an unfamiliar voice called.
The coach creaked as he climbed again and appeared through the window. “Now you, miss.”
She stripped her gloves so she could clasp better and reached up to him. When his hand closed around her wrist, she gripped his wrist in return and he hoisted her upward, too, without hesitation. There was strength and confidence in that hold, and she knew he would not falter.
Before she could see him clearly, he swung her down to the waiting arms of her driver, who caught her with a slight stagger. “Are you well, Miss Pettibone? You look…overset.”
“Overturned would be more apt, Mr. York. But I am well enough. How is Janie?”
“Here, miss,” the maid called from the road. “I am whole.”
Relieved, Sophie exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Thank heavens! You may put me down now, Mr. York.”
The driver placed her on her feet, but a sharp pain shot through her right knee. She grimaced and seized Mr. York’s arm to steady herself. “Just a bruise,” she assured him. “Give me a moment to adjust and I shall be quite fine.”
“Are ye sure, Miss?”
“Will not put weight on it until it has been seen to.”
Sophie turned to the pleasantly masculine voice that had finished her sentence and recognized the silhouette of the man who had pulled her from the coach. Oh my! He really was quite handsome. The wind had mussed his dark hair and a sweep of it had fallen across his brow to frame the most interesting eyes she had ever encountered—somewhere between gray and green. He had a strong chin with the shadow of a cleft. His mouth, though, was pursed in concern as he bent over her. He smelled of fresh linen and wool with a hint of shaving soap—a very pleasant scent that caused something to tingle deep inside her.
Before she could respond, he swept her up and began carrying her to a coach a few yards away. Little alarm bells went off in her mind. The man was handsome, yes, but how could she possibly know his intentions?
She wiggled, trying to get down. “Sir, put me down.”
“I do not think so, Miss Pettibone. We must get you to Windsong Hall with all due haste.”
Windsong Hall? “Are you one of the guests, sir?”
“I am the executor of your late uncle’s estate.”
Sophie had received a letter from a Viscount Selwick with instructions to come at once to Windsong Hall for the reading of the will. This, then, must be the unknown Viscount, but that did not help her with her dilemma in the least.
“Lord Selwick? Really, you needn’t carry me, and I must wait with Janie and the coach.”
“I have already assured myself that Janie is sound. If I have learned anything from my step-sisters, it is to ignore demurs. Save your breath, Miss Pettibone.”
She raised her eyebrows at his tone. “My reticule—”
“Your maid will see to it.”
She was not used to being commanded. In a household of women, she was the often the one who took charge. Still, this could be interesting in a curious sort of manner.
The viscount placed Sophie in his coach, pulled a fur throw over her lap and climbed in to take the seat opposite. He rapped on the roof and the coach took off at a stately pace.
“Now, if you will allow me, Miss Pettibone, I would like to have a look at your injury.”
“Really, that isn’t necessary. I just landed against the door latch when the coach overturned.”
But it was too late. He had leaned over and lifted her right foot to rest on his knee. She felt a heated blush rise to her cheeks when he pushed the hem of her gown up to mid-calf. Her pale blue stockings were exposed along with her sturdy traveling boots.
“Good Lord,” he muttered without looking up at her. “I doubt you could sustain much damage through such sensible traveling gear, but we cannot leave it to chance.” He began loosening the laces of her boot.
This was a bit more than the usually placid Sophie could endure. A retort rose to her lips. “My Lord! You must not!”
He looked directly at her for the first time, the hint of a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth as he cupped her heel and tugged the boot off. “I shall close my eyes, Miss Pettibone, if that will preserve your modesty.”
Speechless, she watched as he closed his eyes and slid his hands, strong and steady, from her ankle up over her calf to her knee. She could have sworn there was something…seductive in the way his hand skimmed her leg. And did his hand go a bit higher than necessary? He flexed her knee slowly, almost as if he were waiting for a moan or gasp. She complied against her will when a sharp pain burst into life. His hand slid over a tear in her stocking, shocking her with the intimate heat of his hand against her bare flesh.
“I fear I shall have to take a look, Miss Pettibone. Your cry and the torn stocking tell me a vastly different story than your words.” And, very slowly, he opened his eyes—those chameleon eyes. His gaze dropped immediately to her exposed limb.
She looked down, too, and was surprised to see blood soiling the pristine blue of her stockings and a ragged gap exposing an oozing cut across her knee—neither too deep nor too long, but sufficiently painful. He removed a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and ripped it in two, folding one part into a pad, and the other into a twist to tie around her knee to hold the makeshift bandage in place.
“Wash that well with hot water when we have you home, eh?”
She missed the warmth of his hand when he withdrew and a tiny shiver shot through her. She thought, from the set of his features, that he was a bit unsettled, too. Heavens, this would never do!
He reached for her hem and pulled it down over her legs in a quick motion, almost as if he’d just realized he’d seen too much. “I believe that will hold you until we have you back at Windsong, Miss Pettibone.”
And thank heavens for that! Much more of his handling and she’d have been incoherent. Living in a household of females, she was unused to a man’s touch, or the feelings it could evoke. Her cheeks burned when she realized this stranger had seen more of her than any man ever had. Even the duke.
He allowed a slight smile now that the danger was past. Sophie smiled back, the irony of the situation not entirely lost on her. Since he did not seem inclined to break the awkward silence she cleared her throat and tried a neutral topic. “Am I the last to arrive, My lord?”
“You are. We expected you for luncheon.” He folded his arms across his chest and settled back against the cushions.
“I apologize. We were delayed in our departure this morning. A deficit of fresh horses, it seems.”
“Such inconveniences are not uncommon in the country, Miss Pettibone. One should prepare ahead for them.”
Was that a reprimand? The prig! She arched one eyebrow. “Or one could make allowances for them.”
He merely stared at her, his expression unchanging.
Well, if he could be taciturn, so could she. But while he had probably forgotten his veiled reprimand already, she had not. In fact, she was now contemplating ways to make him pay for that. Ways, in fact, to dig beneath that harsh controlling veneer and see what really lay beneath. Ways to make him forget himself and smile. The man really needed a bit of Christmas.
As he was not inclined to conversation, she watched out the window until she saw their destination ahead.
Windsong Hall was a massive Elizabethan manor house that towered above the trees and looked mysteriously imposing against the icy blue horizon. Lamps glowed in several windows, and a glass globe protected flames in the lantern stands on either side of wide stone steps.
As they drew up at the entry, the door opened and her relatives burst forth—her cousin Marjory with her husband Thomas, cousin Emma Grant with her son, little Georgie, and cousin Jonathan Arbuthnot bringing up the rear. How nice it would be to visit with them again. It had been far too long.
A footman opened the coach door and Viscount Selwick hopped down. He lifted her out and set her experimentally on her feet. Alas, she faltered again. Not as badly as before, but enough to evidence a limp.
Jonathan hurried forward with a welcoming smile. “What now, Cousin Sophie? Have you had another misadventure?”
She laughed. “Just a little coaching accident.”
“Lord! Never a dull moment with you, is there?” He reached to lift her in his arms but the viscount preempted him by sweeping her up once again and casting a dark look in Jonathan’s direction.
“Potter, run ahead and be certain Miss Pettibone’s fire is lit. And tell cook to bring her tea and a bowl of soup.”
An elderly gentleman with gray hair and a slightly stooped posture hurried off, a concerned look on his face.
Sophia could barely keep from sighing. Lord Selwick was so hopelessly handsome and so determined. Indeed, she had rarely felt so unaccountably feminine but, next to his blatant masculinity, it was inevitable. Oh, this whole event was far too confusing. And when she settled into his arms as he carried her up the front steps and into the great hall, she was certain that God would smite her for her wayward thoughts.
Sebastian took the grand staircase two at a time, less to rush Miss Pettibone to her destination than to escape the family. Her arrival had elicited everything from relief and joy to snorts of disapproval and he was uncomfortable with such a high level of emotion.
Especially his own. When Mr. Arbuthnot came forward to assist his cousin, Sebastian found he did not want anyone else touching Miss Pettibone. Odd, since he barely knew her. Likely it was his banked physical needs caused by the fact that he’d dismissed his mistress fully six months ago and had not found a replacement. Not that Miss Pettibone would be a suitable replacement. Far from it! He never dallied with young women of the ton. That spelled trouble. And that spelled marriage.
Still, from the moment he’d seen Miss Pettibone looking up at him through the coach window, her red velvet bonnet askew, he’d been entranced. Her luminous soulful eyes coupled with her dark glossy hair were a startling contrast to her fair complexion. She had the sort of beauty that was termed ‘exotic’—the sort that painters strove in vain to capture on canvas. Sebastian thought of it as sultry, deeply sensual and lush.
She was quite unlike any woman he’d known before. Most who’d been through a coaching accident would be swooning and demanding attention. She seemed rather annoyed with the fuss and impatient to get on. But she hadn’t lost her humor. Sebastian had rarely been so expertly teased and he suspected Miss Pettibone might be a flirt, a skill which he could appreciate but lacked entirely.
Add to that the fact that Miss Pettibone’s reputation was a bit daunting, what with jilting a duke, refusals aplenty and leaving disasters in her wake, and he was certain he’d be best served by avoiding her as much as possible.
He gave himself a mental shake and looked down into her face. She smiled at him and, in the bright light of the chandelier at the top of the staircase, he noted a bruise along one cheekbone and a scratch on her neck. His viscera twisted in response. “You said you were uninjured, Miss Pettibone,” he said in his most intimidating voice.
Her smile widened. “Indeed, I am.”
“I see evidence to the contrary.”
“Bumps and bruises are not cause for concern, My lord. My knee to the contrary, I am as fit as I’ve ever been.”
He turned right down the south wing corridor, pleased that she would be lodged in the same wing as he. Now, if he could just think of some excuse to relocate Mr. Arbuthnot so he could have unimpeded access to her.
“What are you thinking, My lord? I can see the wheels grinding in your head. You are silent, but I collect your mind is never at rest for very long.”
He’d blush if he were capable of it. He could hardly tell her he’d been thinking how best to seduce her—to the contrary of his decision only moments earlier. Instead, he tried a self-serving evasion. “I am trying to sort the family out, Miss Pettibone. How long has it been since you last saw your uncle?”
“I was a babe in arms, I believe, and have no memory of the occasion. He was a young man, just ready to leave for the gold fields in America, and he never returned. Well, but for now. Aunt Nora said—”
“No, my mother’s sister. I was sent to Auntie Nora to raise after Papa and Mama died. On Uncle Oliver’s side there were only my father and my uncles Edward and Oliver and my aunt Beth. Marjory is descended from Edward. Jonathan and Emma are descended from Beth and I was my father’s only child. Did Uncle Oliver ever marry, Lord Selwick? Shall I meet new cousins here?”
“Your uncle never married, Miss Pettibone.”
She glanced around the room they’d just entered, filled with costly antiques, paintings and the very best of everything. She quirked one eyebrow. “Though he did succeed in finding gold, it seems.”
He smiled again. He rather liked the way she probed right to the heart of the matter.
“And you, my lord?” she continued as he put her down on the edge of her bed. “Your father was Uncle Oliver’s partner?”
“More of an investor than a partner, since he never went to America himself. He profited nicely, though he had no more at risk than a few thousand pounds.”
She laughed and he liked the way those sultry eyes crinkled at the corners when she did. “Do not underestimate the power of a few thousand pounds, my lord.”
He never would again. Without thinking, he reached out and cupped her cheek, tracing the bruise with the pad of his thumb. No matter what she said, it must ache. She turned her face toward his palm and he felt the heat of her breath against his flesh. The sensation was warming. And disquieting. He dropped his hand and stepped back, changing his mind yet again. He could not dally with such a woman, and a dalliance was all he had to offer. He did not want a family nor was he the marrying kind.
Potter had laid another log on the fire before he and Miss Pettibone arrived above stairs and Sebastian stirred the embers to release a bit more heat into the cavernous room. “I shall see that your maid comes to you as soon as she arrives. Meanwhile, is there anything else I can provide for your comfort?”
She untied her bedraggled red bonnet and dropped it on the bed beside her. “I think…I can manage until then.”
He could not resist giving her back some of her own teasing. “If you would prefer not to wait for her, perhaps I could assist—”
“No! That is…quite alright, thank you.”
“Really, I would not mind in the least. Did I mention I have stepsisters?”
“I am fine, Lord Selwick.”
“Your injury should be seen to.”
“Janie will tend it when she arrives.”
“Do you propose to just sit on the edge of your bed until then?”
Her expression changed and he gathered she was on to him. Her eyes twinkled as she raised an eyebrow. “I shall put forth herculean effort and manage as best I can.”
He shrugged. “Very well, Miss Pettibone. I am just down the hall from you. I shall call for you when I hear the dinner bell.”
When he turned at her door to close it, she was wearing an expression of bemusement. He wondered if it would be too much to hope that he was having the same physical effect on her as she was on him. That would only be fair.