December 24, 1883
“We could play charades,” suggested Lady Hawley.
“Mamma, we played charades last night,” said her daughter, Margaret, in an indulgent tone. “It wouldn’t do to bore our guests. Don’t you agree, Eleanor?”
“Hmmm?” Eleanor asked, for she hadn’t been attention at all. Instead she’d been trying her best not to let her eyes fall on Lord Michael Hawley. Normally his rather handsome face would be a pleasant distraction, but not now. Not on this very disappointing Christmas Eve. “I’m sure whatever you pick will be quite enjoyable.”
Of course he was the reason for her disappointment, she thought as the other ladies went back to discussing the night’s agenda. He was the reason for everything. Sitting in spindly chairs at ball after endless ball, she and her London friends liked to dream of the day she became Lady Hawley—something that her family’s annual trip to the Hawley family’s home had confirmed would never happen. Ever.
Despite wearing her best dresses and putting on her brightest smiles, the baron had been nothing but polite and warm to her, almost brotherly. One afternoon she’d spotted a tiny package under the tree with her name on the tag, and her hopes had soared. Perhaps Michael had thought of her after all. But by evening it was gone again, no doubt mistakenly labeled for her by one of the servants.
Eleanor was coming to accept that difficult truth that all Michael saw when he looked at her was the little girl he’d once fished out of Blackburn Pond after her youngest sister, Charlotte, planted a frog in the bottom of Eleanor’s rowboat. She’d capsized in all her humiliated glory as he and Julian lounged on the bank watching and laughing.
Now, Eleanor sat contemplating how she could quietly slip out of the drawing room and retire to her room. Perhaps she could beg off with a headache.
She nearly had her escape route planned when Charlotte called out from across the room, “Let’s have carols, Lady Hawley!”
“Charlotte.” Her voice was a low warning that did little to hide her annoyance at her sister’s imperiousness.
Margaret clapped her hands, “That is just the thing!”
“I think that carols would be a lovely way to end the evening. Miss Morris,” Lady Hawley said, “will you accompany us? We all know you excel at the piano.”
So does every other gently-born lady in Britain, she wanted to respond. But Eleanor rose anyway. When the Hawley matriarch asked something of you, you snapped to it.
* * *
A dull pang throbbed in Michael’s chest as he watched Eleanor move to take her seat at the piano. He raised a hand to surreptitiously rub at the spot even though nothing was going to ease the ache. The plain truth was that he wanted this woman. He’d wanted her since visiting the Morris’ after returning from his Grand Tour with Julian two long years ago. Eleanor had breezed into the drawing room fresh from a walk in the park, and his heart had dropped through the floor. He’d never quite found it again.
No doubt Mrs. Morris would be as overjoyed as Julian would be horrified if her eldest daughter formed an understanding with a baron, but Michael wasn’t so sure how the lady herself felt. With friends and family she was all warmth, her joy radiating out with such brilliance that it was a wonder every man wasn’t in love with her. Around him, however, her smile seemed brittle. She grew stiff, as though his very presence made her uncomfortable.
And yet, he refused to go down without a fight. In the pocket of his dinner jacket, he touched her present wrapped in red and gold paper. It was a frivolous thing, but the idea struck him a month before and he’d been unable to shake it. He’d told himself it didn’t matter whether it pleased her or not, but it did. It mattered more than anything in all of England.
From his seat next to Julian’s, he watched Eleanor sit at the piano bench, the long skirts of her bustled dress fanned out behind her. Every instinct screamed at him to drag her up into his arms and finally claim her with a kiss. Enough of this waiting and watching, wondering if she could ever love him. He wanted answers.
Without another thought, Michael was on his feet and striding towards her. “Eleanor, you need someone to turn the pages for you.”
He hadn’t asked whether she wanted his assistance because he wouldn’t entertain the thought that she might banish him back to the corner of his own drawing room.
She didn’t look at him, instead turning her head slightly to expose the long, graceful slope of her neck. “Thank you.”
The rest of the guests began to gather around the piano. Michael slipped a hand back into his pocket and grazed her present with his fingertips again.
* * *
Quiet had settled over Blackburn Manor by the time Eleanor opened the door of the room she shared with Charlotte and stole out into the corridor. Her back ached for she’d played late into the night. The merry little party sang every Christmas song and hymn she knew. “Deck the Halls”, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” even “Away in the Manger” although hardly any of them knew more than the first verse to the new carol. Despite her exhaustion, her whole body pulsed with energy.
She blamed Michael, of course. He’d stood so close to her, it was a wonder she’d been able to play at all. The scent of wool and spice enveloped her every time he reached over to turn the pages of her sheet music. Once he leaned a little too close and the cuff of his jacket brushed the bare skin of her neck. Awareness exploded through her body like fireworks, and her fingers missed a chord. She wanted to feel those sparks again.
Rather than stay in her room running through the evening over and over again in her head while her sister slept, she’d pulled on her dressing gown and slippers and escaped.
Eleanor stole along the corridor with nothing but the low flicker of gaslights to light her way to the library. There at least she could find comfort and distraction among the books. Softly, she twisted the doorknob and let herself in. The dying embers in the fireplace warmed the room, and the pine garlands that hung along the mantle scented the air. She closed her eyes to breath in deep. “Peace.”
“Is that what you’ve come looking for?”
Eleanor’s eyes snapped open, and she watched, stunned as Michael unfold himself from a wing-backed chair facing the fire. He wore no jacket or necktie. His shirt was undone at the collar, the sleeves pushed up to reveal forearms corded with muscle from years of riding.
It was all utterly indecent and thoroughly tempting.
Eleanor knew that she should turn around, march back upstairs, and hide under the counterpane. Instead, she swallowed her propriety and closed the door.
* * *
Michael had cursed himself when he’d been unable to separate Eleanor from her family at the end of the night. They’d tumbled upstairs in a ball of mirth, leaving him alone in the drawing room, her present still in his pocket.
But now she stood before him with her hair tumbling down her shoulders like a Burne-Jones painting, ethereal and angelic. She’d cinched her pale green dressing gown tight around her waist, but it gapped open a little at the top giving him a glimpse of the embroidered edge of a white nightrail. He wanted to slip his fingers along the edge and feel the smooth skin underneath.
He shook his head to clear the fog of lust clouding his mind. “Were you unable to sleep?” he started again.
“Perhaps I’m too excited for Christmas Day,” she said.
He grinned. “At least you’re wearing slippers this time. I remember one year you were caught creeping downstairs in bare feet to look at the tree.”
Her nose scrunched up. “How was I supposed to know that your father would keep to his early riding schedule even on Christmas?”
“He was like that.”
Her face softened, and she looked up at him through thick, black lashes. “I’m sorry to have mentioned him. It must be difficult.
He shook his head. “We miss him, but we have your family with us.”
“And we make a cacophony loud enough to distract anyone. I do apologize,” she said in a wry tone as she brushed an errant strand of hair away from her face.
They stood there, the air humming with unspoken tension. Her state of dress was just this side of respectable, and he wasn’t much better. It should be so easy to just kiss her and find out whether she welcomed it, but there was something he had to do first.
Screwing up his courage, he stepped forward. “Eleanor, I have something for you.”
* * *
Eleanor froze as she watched Michael pick something up off of a low table next to his chair. It was a small, flat package wrapped in red and gold striped paper. The same one she’d spotted that afternoon and hoped was from him.
He held the present out, standing close enough that she could see the shadow of his beard coming in. She wanted to feel the rasp of his whiskers against her fingers. She could too if only she reached across the gap between them.
“I’ve been waiting to give this to you, but we’re so rarely alone,” he said, saving her from herself.
Excitement bubbled up in her. “Michael—”
“Take it. Please.”
She took the package, undid the gold ribbon bow that held the paper together, and opened the box. Nestled on a bed of white tissue was a thin golden twig with a pin affixed to the back of it. Her heart beat a little faster. He’d given her a broach. A lovely broach.
“Do you remember coming to Blackburn Manor one summer when you were just sixteen?” he asked.
She turned the piece of jewelry over between her fingers. “Of course.”
“You used to sit under a pear tree and read,” he said in a rush as though he, Lord Michael Hawley, was nervous. “The tree was dying and had to be removed this autumn, but I asked the gardener to keep a little bit of it for me. I had it made up into a broach because it reminded me of you.”
She blinked in surprise, hardly knowing what to say. It was such a little thing, and yet for him to remember…
“Michael, it’s beautiful,” she whispered.
He looked almost bashful now. “I hoped that you might like it.”
She let out a low, long breath. Then, before she could stop herself, she went up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. Her lips brushed his skin, and she started to pull back but his hand caught her around the waist. He gathered her to him, tilted his head just the slightest bit to the left, and finally—after years of hoping he would—he kissed her.
Michael’s lips worked over hers as she melted into him. He tasted like nothing she’d imagined. He was cool and fresh, and she opened for him just a little more so he could run his tongue over hers. The sensation left her just a little drunk on something she didn’t know the name of. When he finally let go of her she had to lean into him for support.
“Was that okay?” he asked, his thumb coming up to trace the line of her jaw. She nudged her cheek into his fingers until his palm opened.
“That was exactly what I wanted for Christmas.”
A low chuckle rumbled in his chest. “I’ve waited far too long to do that.” Joy filling her so fully that she felt as though she might float out of the room. “I think I’ve loved you from the moment I saw you eating berries with your book beneath that tree.”
Her breath caught in her throat. He loved her? All of those nights wondering if he would ever look at her as anything but Julian’s sister evaporated. Toying with the fabric at his collar, she confessed, “I’ve loved you from afar for so long.”
He dropped a kiss to her forehead. “I wasn’t so very far away.”
Her fingers clutched at the fabric. “It didn’t feel that way.”
That earned her another kiss, this one as breathless as the last.
“I want to court you, Eleanor,” he murmured against her lips. “I would marry you tomorrow if I could.”
“On Christmas Day?” she asked with a smile.
He laughed. “Happily, but not without dragging the archbishop out of bed for a special license and risking gossip. I want everyone to know how proud I am to have you for my wife when we wed. I don’t want there to be any doubts that this is a love match.”
She tilted her head to one side, contemplating his proposal as he ran his finger down the length of her neck. “Julian will be horrified.”
“Julian will learn to like the idea. He’ll have to,” he said pulling her even closer to him. “Tomorrow I will ask your father’s permission, and if he agrees we can be engaged soon.”
Eleanor shot him a look. “Don’t believe for a second that Mother will stand for being left out of that conversation.”
He chuckled. “I learned long ago to fear the wrath of Mrs. Morris’ displeasure as much as my own mother’s. I will ask both your parents and then you can make up your mind about me.”
This. This moment was the happiest she’d ever been. All of the disappointment and waiting, the wondering and doubt fell away. All she knew was what it felt to be in the arms of this man—the man she loved.
She draped her arms around his neck and tilted her head back to smile at him. “Michael, I made up my mind about you a long time ago.”