There was nothing more uplifting than love during the Christmas season.
Nancy Keats, Countess of Bursbury, caught her husband’s eye from across the room. He nodded his head in silent invitation for her to join him.
She cast a final glance at their daughters, Eugenia who was carefully cutting gold paper into perfectly-shaped stars and Penelope who was diligently working at the thin tissue with sharp scissors.
“What is that, darling?” Nancy asked her eldest daughter.
“It’s a liver.” Penelope glanced to her sister and lowered her shears. “I can do stars if you prefer.”
“Do what you like.” Nancy touched one of Penelope’s soft auburn curls. The girl would be coming out the following season and should enjoy the final moments of childhood while she could. “It is a Christmas celebration, after all,” Nancy added.
After ensuring the children were enjoying themselves, Nancy swept toward her husband, accepting the welcome invitation. He flashed her the grin that had made her lose her heart so many years ago.
“You’ve outdone yourself.” He slid his hand around her waist, unseen by others, but certainly discernible to her, even through layers of clothing. “The evening has been a success.”
“Not entirely.” Nancy looked pointedly to where Noah sat by the fire, alone. Always alone, her poor brother. “I had such lofty hopes for Lady Stallingsworth’s daughter. Lady Sylvia seemed like such a wonderful choice.”
“Noah doesn’t appear put out to me.” Elias removed his hand from Nancy’s waist. “Indeed, I ought to go join him by the fire for a brandy and ensure he’s well.”
Nancy gave a good-natured laugh and let her husband go. Elias had gone out of his way through the duration of their marriage to ensure Noah felt welcome, despite how surly her younger brother could be at times. Especially of late. With their youngest brother, Rupert, at war, they had all been tense with worry.
The hem of Lady Stallingsworth’s sparkling golden dress peeked around the doorway across the room. So, that was where she had gotten off to. Hopefully her daughter was with her as well.
Nancy marched in that direction, eager to try her hand at pushing Lady Sylvia to Noah one last time. After all, Nancy had not become a successful match-maker by giving up easily on couples who pair well together.
“Please do let’s leave, Mother.” The gentle feminine voice was all too familiar as that of Lady Sylvia. “I cannot stand to be nudged toward that brother of hers for a second more.”
Nancy stopped short, turned about and headed instead in the direction of the table beside the doorway to listen rather than intrude. Yes, it was petty to eavesdrop, but the topic of conversation was Noah.
Rather than focus on her impropriety, she sorted out the little gold cut outs the girls had left on the table from their earlier attempts. And she listened.
“He is a marquis,” Lady Stallingsworth hissed.
“I’d rather have a lower title than have a husband with a twisted leg.” Lady Sylvia made a sound of disgust. “Did you see it? The way the foot juts out. Imagine what his leg must look like. And he could never dance. Mother, could you imagine me being with a man who could never dance?”
Heat flared in Nancy’s cheeks and she nearly stopped breathing in her attempt to hear every awful word.
“It would indeed be a waste. Still…” Lady Stallingsworth sounded pensive. “He is quite wealthy.”
“Other men are wealthier, and they’re whole.”
No other argument was presented. None was needed, apparently.
“Tell the footman we need our carriage,” Lady Stallingsworth said. “I’ll make our farewells.”
Nancy startled at the plaintive cry. Penelope stood in front of her, mouth opened in dismay. “You’ve crushed my heart.” She lay a small stack of carefully cut stars on the table and pulled Nancy’s hand toward her.
Nancy unfurled her fingers to find a crumpled bit of gold paper. “Oh, darling, I’m so sorry, I didn’t—”
“Lady Bursbury.” Lady Stallingsworth strode toward them, all false smiles and faux joy. “It would appear my sweet Sylvia has developed a bit of a headache. You know how it is for girls at this age.” She gave a little pout of sympathy for her daughter’s feigned ailment.
Oh, yes, Nancy knew well how it was for girls such as Stallingworth’s spoiled daughter. How had Nancy ever thought the young woman good enough for Noah?
Ever the consummate hostess, Nancy swallowed her disgust and returned a plastered expression of her own. “Of course. I’m so sorry to hear she’s unwell and trust she will be better soon.” As in, on the way home as soon as the carriage door closed behind them.
Lady Stallingsworth gave her thanks, wished them a Happy Christmas, and swiftly departed. As eager to leave as Nancy was to have the woman gone.
“You’re crushing it again.” Penelope held out her hand and Nancy put the ball of gold paper into her warm palm with an exasperated sigh. “Forgive me, Penelope.”
Penelope regarded the empty hall where Lady Stallingsworth had departed. “She is an awful woman, but you didn’t need to take it out on my poor heart.”
“It’s your uncle’s heart that most concerns me,” Nancy muttered.
But Penelope was already walking away, and did not hear her mother’s sad words.
“What of my heart?” Noah asked.
“Oh.” Nancy spun about with her hand to her chest. “Goodness, you shouldn’t sneak up on people so.”
Noah stared at her incredulously. “You do realize I’m hardly one for sneaking up on anyone.”
Defensive about any deprecations of Noah, even from himself, she put her fists to her hips and chided him, “Cease that prattle at once. You are every bit as capable as anyone else.”
Noah twisted his lips to the side in apparent chagrin. “I thought I might bid farewell to Lady Stallingsworth and her daughter before I take my leave.” He scanned around the room. “It’s the gentlemanly thing to do despite my having to endure yet another of your many matching schemes.”
“It’s matchmaking,” Nancy corrected. “And they’ve been rather successful thus far, I’ll have you know.”
Noah leaned heavily on his cane and craned his ear closer. “And Lady Sylvia?”
“She has already departed.” And she was never good enough for you.
Noah brightened at this. “Ah, well, then it appears I do not need to play the gentleman after all. I bid you good night, sister.” He tugged one of her perfectly tong-curled locks and winked before departing.
“That took hours to do.” Nancy put her hand over the offended bit of hair.
“I love you too,” Noah called back. “Happy Christmas.”
The cheeky rogue. Except she knew him deep down, beneath the layers hardened by his twisted leg and the calluses built up to shield him against society’s rebuffs. Inside, he was tender and caring, and even had a fine sense of humor when he wasn’t being so cynical.
A glance in the mirror confirmed her hair was still in good order, and revealed the arrival of a new guest.
“Helen.” Nancy faced her friend.
Miss Helen Craig, daughter to Douglas Craig, owner of the largest trade of diamonds in all of England gave an apologetic smile. “Happy Christmas. Do forgive my late arrival. You know I’m terrible at these events.”
A pretty flush crept over Helen’s fair cheeks and made her green eyes sparkle.
“I’m well aware,” Nancy said with a laugh. “You’re almost as bad as my brother, Noah.”
Almost. Indeed, it was the reason Nancy had not been able to try to match the two. They both always seemed to be in different places at different times and were as likely to ever meet as were winter and summer.
Nancy had an inkling they would have done marvelously well together.
“You’ve got something up your sleeve, haven’t you?” Elias came to Nancy’s side as soon as Helen had left to exclaim over the paper stars Eugenia and Penelope had made.
“Perhaps,” Nancy answered coyly. “But let it be known Lady Stallingsworth and her daughter will not be attending any more social events we host.”
“I’m scarcely disappointed.” Elias drew Nancy into an alcove and slid his hands on either side of her waist. “I am however, grateful for a moment with my lovely wife.”
Truly, in all the years she had matched eligible bachelors, Elias was by far her favorite. In fact, his failed match had become her best yet.
He brushed a kiss over her lips and a giddy flutter started low in her stomach. How did he manage to make her feel so after so many years of marriage?
The piano tinkled to life in the other room followed by the sweet sound of several feminine voices. “We should join them,” Nancy whispered.
Elias stared down at her and she felt, as she often did, as though she could fall into those blue eyes and lose herself forever. Her knees went soft.
“Soon,” he murmured. “Happy Christmas, Lady Bursbury.”
Before she could wish him a Happy Christmas in return, his mouth came down on hers and he showed her just how happy it would indeed be.
To read on about Noah and Helen’s story, check out Mesmerizing the Marquis.
To read on about Penelope’s story, check out Earl of Oakhurst.