Aidan left the dress shop. He had a purpose now.
He intended to find Lady Larissa tonight. It was important to see if he noticed another suitor paying particular attention to her. Despite the tremendous pressure he was under to find a bride before the ball ended, he was an honorable man. He would not wish to infringe where another man had already planted his flag, so to speak. If he determined that the lady favored no gentleman in particular, he would seek her out. He only hoped her maid hadn’t poisoned her against him. By the servant chastising her mistress and telling Lady Larissa she shouldn’t talk to the likes of him, Aidan worried that the maid knew he was a Sinning Flynn.
Because of the time constraint placed upon him, Aidan would have to be blunter than usual if he did pursue Lady Larissa.
It boiled down to how open-minded she could be. He would need to see if she could set aside the gossip surrounding the Sinning Flynns long enough to get to know him before passing judgment.
And if she could?
Aidan would ask for her hand in marriage by the end of the Stag Ball—because he wanted Larkhaven badly enough to wed a stranger in order to possess it.
Elizabeth sat next to Philip, cradling the infant in the crook of her left arm, so the babe faced him.
“She is fine-looking,” he complimented, staring at Lady Elizabeth, seeing how comfortable—and right—she looked with a child in her arms.
He wished he were the one to give her a babe.
The thought shocked him. Appalled him. He knew this woman was not meant for him. He needed to banish such foolish thoughts.
“Would you care to hold Lily, Your Grace?”
“What?” he asked, startled by the thought.
She leaned toward him. “Here, take her. You will see what a little love my niece is.”
Suddenly, Philip held a babe in his arms. He was dumbfounded. She was a tiny thing, with long lashes and the smallest of mouths. She opened her eyes and stared at him with interest. A rush of warmth flooded him.
Then the babe smiled up at him.
“Oh, do you see that? She’s smiling. Lily is smiling at His Grace.” Lady Elizabeth looked at him. “From the look on your face, Your Grace, I think Lily has made her first feminine conquest.”
In awe, he took a finger and stroked the babe’s cheek. She cooed at him and raised a small fist, capturing his smallest finger with her tiny ones. Her hand was so small, so delicately formed.
Philip realized in that moment two things about himself. One, that he wanted children desperately and would be the father to them which he never had. The second?
That he was capable of love.
Luke read the title aloud. “Mirth Without Mischief.”
Caroline had mentioned this book to Luke, wishing to locate a copy since she had one previously when she had lived in Boston with her Aunt Evie. She had told him about The Twelve Days of Christmas, her favorite tale in the collection, which was a chant about the many gifts a lover presented to his sweetheart.
Ever since she had talked about the book, Luke had been on the lookout for it.
“Not a word to Lady Mayfield,” he warned. “I plan to give this to her on Christmas Day this year. I think I will even teach the chant she has mentioned to our children so that they might perform it for her. She said children in Boston used to memorize and say the rhyme during the holidays.”
“I will wrap it—and your other volume—up, my lord. You can retrieve it from my desk before you leave today.”
“Thank you, Stinch. It will mean a great deal to Lady Mayfield. I will be sure she knows you are the one who found it.”
Luke left the manager’s office, wanting not only to give Caroline the volume on Christmas Day, but also thinking he might need to find herself a present for each of those twelve days of Christmas.
He would turn them into twelve days of love.
Ashlyn Baker, Duchess of Gilford, awoke nestled in the arms of her husband. Reid had become her world in such a short time. He was loyal, generous, and fiercely protective of those he loved.
Especially the child she carried.
Ashlyn stroked his arm. Soon, his lips caressed her nape and his hands roamed her body, sending waves of heat through her. She didn’t think she would ever grow tired of this man’s tender touch.
After they made love, he held her close, nuzzling her neck.
“You need for Anderson to shave you,” she told him, referring to his valet.
“Are my whiskers scratching you, love?” he asked, concerned.
“A bit. But Anderson will have you clean-shaven in no time.”
Reid sighed. “That means I would have to leave this bed. I am not sure I like that idea.” His arms tightened about her. “You feel too good. Perhaps I shall clear my schedule today and remain in bed to continually make love to my beautiful wife.”
“Oh!” she said, startled by the sudden, unexpected fluttering in her belly.
“What’s wrong?” her husband asked, turning her to face him.
She smiled. “It is what I have been waiting for. The baby is moving.”
He placed his hand alongside the swell of her belly. “This is truly happening, isn’t it? We are going to be parents.”
“Many times over, I hope.”
He kissed her, long and deep, and love flowed between them.
Breaking the kiss, he said, “We better ready ourselves for the day. I can’t have an army of boys invade our bedchamber in search of their headmistress.”
Did this bridge have something to do with Anne?
Quickly, she hurried from the woods and toward the bridge. Anne watched Iris approach. As she drew near, she could see Anne was translucent. Iris could see the bridge behind Anne.
She reached the ghost and said, “I know you are a ghost, Anne. Does this bridge have anything to do with why you returned to Glanbury?”
Anne pointed as she slowly dissipated.
“Where, Anne?” demanded Iris. “Am I to cross the bridge?”
But the ghost had vanished. She would have to seek the answers on her own.
Iris stepped onto the bridge and walked across it slowly, looking at the planks of wood below her feet. The sides. The handrail. Where once she had scampered across it without any thought, this time she moved slowly and deliberately. Her patience was rewarded when she reached the very center of the bridge.
Atop the handrail, someone had carved a heart. Within the heart were the initials EdB and below it an A.
Could this A be for Anne? And who was EdB?
Anne meant for Iris to find this clue. Though she hadn’t the foggiest notion what it meant, Iris knew it might be the key to unlock why Anne roamed Glanbury hundreds of years after her death.
She would discuss this with Crispin tonight. He had always had a love for history and she seemed to remember he knew quite a bit about his ancestors. Maybe he could help her discover who EdB was.
And help Anne find peace.
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Mrs. Dove-Lyon said, “You have one hour in which you may get to know one another. In that time, you will also share a single kiss. At the end of the hour, you should know if you suit one another or not.”
Emma had never been kissed. Ever. The thought of sharing a kiss with Lord Z flustered her. She could feel her cheeks heating.
She felt Lord Z’s eyes upon her, which caused her face to flame further. All thoughts of conversation fled as she inhaled the subtle spice of his cologne. He was broader than he’d appeared from a distance and took up too much space. He was much too close for her to think.
“Tell me something about yourself,” she said.
“I am an only son of a peer. I adore my niece and nephews. Having children is part of the reason I am here tonight.” He smiled ruefully. “And I seek a bride with a large dowry.”
“Many young women making their come-out possess one.”
“They were all so young. So green. I am thirty, Lady A, and felt old enough to be their father. I long for a woman I can converse with. One who wants to be a good wife and mother and yet remain her own person, interested in all manner of ideas.”
Lord Z squeezed her hand. “Family is very important to me. Are you open to this possibility?”
“It is the only reason I seek a husband,” Emma said. “I have longed for children.”
He smiled and it was as if the sun had come out from behind the clouds. It filled her with a warmth she’d never known.
“Do you have anything else you wish to ask of me, Lady A?”
She didn’t. Her heart told her he would be her choice.
“No, Lord Z.”
“Then I suppose we must accomplish the task Mrs. Dove-Lyon assigned to us.”
Emma’s pulse quickened.
“May I kiss you, Lady A?”
Adam guided his horse in front of hers and they reached the water quickly. He dismounted and then went to aid Thea. He captured her waist, his hands spanning it, and brought her to the ground.
And didn’t let go.
They continued gazing at each wordlessly, something passing between them that he might never be able to explain.
Then she said, “I’ve missed riding. Remind me never to break my leg again.”
“I’ve other things to remind you of, Thea,” he said, his voice husky and low. “Important things.”
She licked her lips nervously. “What, Your Grace?”
He bent and touched his lips to hers. His fingers tightened on her waist. Her palms flattened against his chest. He pressed soft kisses against her mouth, his thumbs stroking her ribs. She sighed.
Adam longed to taste her. He urged her mouth open and his tongue swept inside.
Her fingers clutched his waistcoat. She whimpered—and he delved deeper, doing more than merely sampling. She tasted divine. Like the best sweet he’d ever indulged in, though a thousand times better. Her tongue met his and begin teasing it as she kissed him back. His hands moved to her slender back and traveled the length of it, up and down, as they continued to kiss. And kiss. And kiss. Adam had never known a kiss such as this. One that caused his heart to beat rapidly. That filled him with a giddiness that made him want to shout with joy. A kiss that told him everything he needed to know.
He wanted this woman in his life. Now. Forever.
Derek couldn’t take her. She belonged to another, even if her husband had no interest in her. By law, Amelia could never be his. Kissing her now was madness and would only result in heartbreak for them both.
Breaking the kiss, he touched his forehead to hers. They both breathed quickly, almost panting. He inhaled her perfume as he brought her flush against him, feeling her breasts pressing against his chest. What he wouldn’t give to erase the mistakes he’d made, knowing she’d rushed into Trumbull’s arms merely because Derek had cast her aside. He would have to live with that the rest of his life. See her unhappiness as the years unwound. Watch her grow old and bitter, never fulfilled with children, much less have a loving husband and safe home.
“I know you are not only a man of principle but very kindhearted because you brought Diana back into your family.”
He lifted his head from hers. “I loved her. Father banishing her from Esterley never meant I stopped loving her. I brought Diana home as soon as I could.”
Amelia studied him, a slight frown creasing her brow. “I know it’s asking a lot. I’m not asking for love. I’m just so lonely, Derek. I was hoping you would agree … to become my lover. For just one night.”
“I’d like to see you beyond tea, Diana,” he said, his voice low as his gaze sought hers.
“You … would you like … to go for a drive after tea?”
“That would be nice—but I can think of something even nicer.”
Oliver cupped the nape of her neck and saw her eyes widen. The irises darkened. He didn’t say anything, giving her time to refuse his advance if she wished.
And anticipate what would come if she didn’t.
Her tongue darted out and moistened her lips. She didn’t say no. He took that as an encouraging sign.
“I’m going to kiss you, Diana. Do you want this as much as I do?” he asked softly.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Maybe even more than you.”
He sensed the current that ran between them as his fingers tightened slightly. His thumb stroked her neck and finally stopped where her pulse fluttered wildly.
“I promise you won’t forget this first kiss between us.”
“Oh, I forgot my reticule in Walton’s office,” Caroline told Luke, worrying her bottom lip.
He couldn’t understand why women even carried them, much less why Caroline fretted, especially since they’d be back at Evie’s tomorrow morning. “Do you need it?”
A blush tinting her porcelain cheeks. “Actually, I do. I’d ordered a … special book. It came in and I slipped it inside my reticule.”
He captured her waist, his thumbs massaging her ribcage. He loved watching her eyes go large and the hitch in her breath. “How special?”
“It was … something I thought … we might look at tonight. Together,” she demurred.
He lowered his face till his lips were hovering above hers. “It’s naughty?”
“Yes,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning up. “Rachel told me about it.”
He chuckled. “Leave it to my sister to find something like that.”
“Rachel said it’s very interesting. And there are all kinds of things to … try out.”
Luke’s lips touched hers and he took his time leisurely exploring her mouth, enjoying those little noises that came from the back of her throat. He broke the kiss.
“Then I better go back and retrieve it. We’ve only tonight to ourselves to enjoy total peace and quiet till the monsters return tomorrow.”
Caroline swatted him playfully. “They are not,” she protested. “They are the sweetest of children and you love them dearly.”
“I do love them dearly,” he agreed, nuzzling her neck. “And I adore their mama even more.”
Just as Ferand reached where two hallways intersected, a figure rounded the corner at blazing speed and crashed into him. Instinctively, Ferand grabbed on to someone’s elbows and looked down.
His gaze met the deep, green eyes of Elia de Wolfe.
“Come back!” a voice called from a distance.
Lady Elia cursed under her breath. She removed a scroll hidden inside her kirtle and slammed it against his chest.
“Take it!” she hissed.
Ferand released one of her elbows and accepted the small scroll. The seal remained affixed. On it was a head of a wolf. He assumed it was a missive to her from a family member, most likely her father.
“Hide it,” she commanded as the footsteps grew louder.
She pulled on him, leading him around the corner. “Promise me you will not read it.”
He saw the panic welling in her face and how she fought against it.
“I won’t.” Ferand slid it inside his tunic.
“Lady Elia!” The voice came closer.
“God’s Bones,” she murmured. Looking around, she pulled Ferand toward a nearby alcove and pushed him partially in it.
“Kiss me,” she ordered. “And make it look like the kiss of your life.”
Ferand needed no further invitation.
Geoffrey said, “I have something for you this Christmas Day.”
Surprise filled Merryn’s face. “Me? That wasn’t necessary.”
“It was to me.”
He stood and went into their bedchamber, fetching the pair of earrings he’d had the village jeweler craft. He wrapped his fingers around his palm so they couldn’t be seen and returned to the solar, wrapping his arms around his wife’s waist and pulling her close.
“Do you remember what I gave you on our wedding night?” he asked.
“You gave me a brooch from France. I wear it every day.” She fingered the piece resting on her breast.
“I told you the sapphire stones reminded me of your eyes.”
Merryn smiled. “I remember. I remember everything about that night.”
He brought one arm between them and opened his hand, palm up. “These also are the deep blue of your eyes.”
“Oh, Geoffrey!” She stared at the earrings. “They’re lovely.”
“Put them on,” he urged.
His wife took one and fastened it to her earlobe and then did the same with the other.
“They match your eyes,” he told her. “I’ve never seen eyes as blue as yours.” Geoffrey cupped her cheek. “This Christmas is the first of many we will spend together, Merryn.”
He brushed the back of his fingers against her belly. “Next Christmas, our family will grow by one. I hope more children are to come.”
“I love you so much, Geoffrey.”
“I will always love you, Merryn. Forever and ever.”
Standing before him was a woman of incandescent beauty.
Her hair drew Godwin’s eyes. It spilled about her shoulders and down past her waist. It was as if it had been lit afire and burned with all of the shades found in flames. He itched to run his fingers through the silken waves. Vibrant, green eyes dominated her oval face, though pink, full lips tempted him to kiss her before he spoke to her.
Pushing that notion aside, he asked, “What’s your name, pet?”
Her eyes narrowed in displeasure. “What is yours?” she countered, raising her chin a notch.
Beautiful and brave. A lethal combination.
Godwin couldn’t help but chuckle at her daring, a mere slip of a woman standing up to a pirate. “I am Captain Godwin Trenoweth of Poseidon’s Legion. Some even call me God of the Seas.”
Her nose crinkled in disgust. “Oh. A pirate. I’ve heard of them. They take what isn’t theirs.”
He closed the distance between them. “They do,” he confirmed. “Your name, my lady? I’ve told you mine.”
She hesitated a moment and then said, “Melisent Winchester.”
Godwin knew the king had been known as Henry of Winchester before he took his Plantagenet throne. Clever of her to use that surname. She also wore something shapeless of undyed wool, a gray, colorless thing that was no better than a sack covering her, instead of the finery that a princess would wear.
Idly, he wondered what lay beneath the sack.