Day 23 - Story Advent Calendar.

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Advent Calendar 23rd December.

A Duke for Christmas

by Lara Temple.

Part 2.

Marcus. She had always insisted on calling him Marcus, no matter how often her mother corrected her. It had annoyed him as well. Now it was a direct assault on his equilibrium so he went about setting the boundaries.

‘Good evening Miss Alton.’

She smiled, pressing her mouth into a prim line and sinking into a curtsy.

‘Good evening, your grace. Now, what on earth are you doing at the Giant?’

He sighed at the futility of scolding Genna Alton into behavior becoming of a gently bred young woman. If her mother hadn’t succeeded despite very impressive efforts, he was unlikely to have any noticeable effect

‘I was on my way to Nethercote but my horse had enough. So I stopped. From your presence here I gather I am closer than I realized?’

She nodded.

‘Nethercote is just two miles due west but in the dark you could have missed the turning. Mr Bidds could organize a gig, if you still wish to go. Are they expecting you?’

‘No. I wasn’t certain I was heading this way until I was halfway to Dorset. I only meant to ride to Richmond Park but somehow…’

Her eyes widened and again he saw compassion and, peculiarly, approbation. As if such an absurd act made absolute sense.

‘Well, in that case I don’t suggest you descend upon old Mr and Mrs Farraday after dark. It would likely give them a seizure to have the new master show up close on midnight. But as far as I know The Giant, despite its name, has no accommodation. Where is Bidds putting you up?’
‘I have a choice between a pallet in the still room or the stable…’

‘The stable! Most assuredly not! You could stay the night at Hope House. We are rather full but if there are no beds I can double with Mrs Greeley. Then you could have my bedroom ’

My bedroom. The thought of Genna Alton’s bedroom sent another spurt of frantically unwelcome fire through his already shocked body. The absurdity of feeling everything and more he had wondered if he would feel on seeing her sister, but for this very unpredictable young woman didn’t lessen the sensations by one iota, just layered embarrassment on agony.

‘Thank you, Miss Alton, but I wouldn’t dream of evicting you from…Actually, why are you staying at this…Hope House?’

‘I work there. Mama has sold the house in the village after Lottie came out of mourning and they leased a house in town but I chose not to join them so I live at the House and help Mrs Greeley. She is in General Greeley’s widow and in charge of this Hope House, and in charge of me as well, for that matter as she is my godmother and it is thanks to her Mama has agreed to allow me not to come to London. Given what happened in London last week I think the least I can do to alleviate Alton shame is offer you a bed.’

He wished she would stop mentioning her bed. Once he had a decent night’s sleep these strange reactions would likely disappear. Exhaustion could do strange things to a man, he knew all too well.

‘You are not responsible for your sister’s behavior.’

‘I know, but I still want to push her into a mill pond for being such a silly fool. After Mama’s ludicrous letter I almost decided to go to London and box her ears. I know it probably doesn’t comfort you in the least but I still think you’ve had a narrow escape. Even since Talgarth died she’s convinced herself she should have waited for you rather than wed him, especially when it became known you were a war hero and doubly so when she heard you inherited the Nethercote title and fortune sooner than expected when the duke fell under a carriage. I’m awfully sorry she broke your heart again but I should warn you that Mama is hard at work convincing her to concoct a pretty apology.’

He smiled. It was the orchard all over again.

‘I have every faith it will be convincing. However, you can save her the bother and tell her I had no intention of offering for Charlotte even before her reaction to this horror’ – he indicated his scarred cheek and neck – ‘ I daresay you want your pound of flesh by having me admit you were right seven years ago?’

Her eyes widened and to his shock she reached out and touched her fingers to the ridged flesh alongside his neck.

‘It’s not a horror, Marcus, so pray do not be foolish. Does it still hurt?’

He shook his head, battling another spear of unadulterated lust. This was becoming embarrassing. He ought to send her on her way and put an end to this peculiar and utterly misplaced intimacy. He opened his mouth to wish her good night and something else entirely came out.

‘Sometimes it burns. A little.’

She nodded.

‘Dr. Ames at the House has some knowledge of scarring. I don’t mean to minimize your case, but there are a few men there with much more extensive scars and wounds. My sister is an even greater fool than I thought. What on earth was Mama on about? I think you look better like this. You were far too handsome for your own good before. The devil to charlotte’s angel as Mama liked to say. She only wished your eyes were blue instead of grey, she felt that was a better aesthetic with Charlotte’s cornflower eyes.’

He tried to frown and failed.

‘I see you still say precisely what you think, Genna Alton.’

‘It saves time. Were you really not planning to offer for Lottie? She was convinced you would.’

‘Good lord, based on what?’

‘You wrote to her.’

‘I felt ignoring her completely would be construed as sour grapes. She wrote me a dozen letters to which I responded, eventually, with three lines saying I was sorry for her loss.’

‘I think she construed that as being you were sorry for your loss.’

He burst out laughing, rubbing at the protesting skin along his jaw.

‘Since you are being so direct, you will oblige me by making it absolutely clear to her, and to your mother, that I have no intention whatsoever of making any offer for your sister, no matter how much she succeeds in masking her disgust. I have no doubt she will find a perfectly suitable replacement quite quickly. No doubt she already has other prospects in mind; I doubt someone as savvy as she placed all her eggs in such a frayed basket.’

Her eyes sank from his, the first sign of evasion since she looked up from her reading and twisted his world on its axis. Without thinking he covered her clasped hands. They were chilly and he tucked them closer between his.

‘You always worried too much about matters that weren’t in your control…’

Her long lashes rose for a brief moment and then dipped again but not quickly enough to hide the shine of tears. It shocked him far more than her sister’s public display of disgust.

‘Genna…’ his voice was hoarse and her lashes rose again, showing a blaze of fury.

‘Sometimes I hate Lottie! How dare she… I could… She doesn’t deserve you!’

‘Don’t be so hard on her, she is what she is. To be fair, I don’t think anyone deserves me at the moment.’

She snatched her hand from his and he stopped himself for reaching for them again. .

‘Because of that scar?’ She scoffed. ‘Are you really so vain you think it diminishes you?’

‘I don’t think it’s an improvement but no, not because of that. War leaves much more potent scars than the visible ones. I was very lucky, luckier than most, but I’m too… weary to be interested in anything society has to offer. All I want is to reach Nethercote, hopefully find all is in order as my steward assures me, and do nothing but read and ride for a year. At least.’

She brushed the damp from under her eyes and tugged a handkerchief out of an oversized reticule.

‘That is a lovely dream but the moment the county hears you are in residence you will be besieged. So you had best be prepared.’

‘I’m rather hopeful the tales of my deformity will discourage that kind of attention.’

She rolled her eyes.

‘No one but my fool of a sister is likely to regard your scars against all your other assets.’

‘Ah, you think it balances out against a dukedom and a fortune?’

‘Are you searching for compliments, your grace?’

‘And if I am? Will you oblige?’

‘Very well. Aside from falling in love with my sister, I always thought you were quite the most intelligent man I ever met. Will that do? Oh, my goodness, you’re blushing!’

She burst into laughter and what was left of his unfettered heart took a leap into her net, thumping with pleasure. He smiled back.

'You are quite right that conceiving a tendre for your sister was one of my less intelligent moves. Luckily she saved me from my own foolishness.'

Genna's laughter faded, her eyes searching his face.

‘I thought Mama was exaggerating.’ She said slowly. ‘You weren’t so overcome with yearning you accosted Lottie in the park, did you?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I should be begging yours on behalf of my horrid family. Mama wrote that you were so impatient to see Lottie you accosted her in the park.’

‘Good God, your mother and sister were born under the same delusional star. I didn’t even know she would be in the park. I was there riding with a friend of mine and I certainly had no intention of calling on her. When I saw her the only emotion I felt was annoyance that I would have to be polite. Then she squawked and fainted.’

He wanted to spare Genna her sister’s foolish words, but he had underestimated London gossip.

‘My friend Alvie was there and said Lottie did more than squawk. What she said was horrible. It is hardly a surprise she is being shunned at the moment and I think that is why she is so mortified. Mama wrote that she wondered if it were best to come home for a few weeks until it all blows over. And so Lottie can apologize to you in person.’ She smiled a little at his grimace, but there was the same wariness he'd seen before, a kind of stillness like before a dawn attack.

‘Are you still in love with her, Marcus?’

'God, no.' She blinked at his abrupt answer and he tried to temper it. ‘I must be a very fickle fellow because I have to admit my sentiments didn’t survive a year of separation. That lecture of yours in the orchard annoyed the h…well, annoyed me, but you were quite right to warn me.’

Her lashes dropped again and a stain of color bloomed across her cheeks, making his fingers itch to touch that spreading heat, he removed his hands from the table and temptation.

‘You remember that.’

I remember quite a bit about you. How strange.

But I don’t remember this. This is new. Utterly new and utterly terrible and wonderful all at once.

There was something in this family what was very bad for his health. And heart.

‘I remember. You managed to be both infuriating and adorable. You haven’t changed.’

The blush escalated and she stood.

‘I should go now. I still think you should come to the House. You will be more comfortable.’

In your bed? I won’t sleep a wink.

‘I will see you there and return.’

‘No, do not bother, I know my way.’

‘Even if you are mad enough to walk around alone and in the dark on a country lane, do you honestly think I could go to sleep not knowing if you arrived safely?’

‘Jem, the innkeeper’s son, usually sees me there.’

‘Well, I shall see you safe this time. And don’t argue!’

She closed her mouth.

‘Very well, your grace.’

He smiled. ‘See how easy that was?’

The wind had dropped but the air was still and cold. Candlelight flickered from some of the windows of the big house and he had to admit it looked more inviting than the squat inn down the lane.

She turned by the door, the hood of her cape falling back as she looked up at him, her hand outstretched.

‘Sleep here tonight.’

His body heard what it wanted to hear, beating back the cold and the emptiness. Oh, God, he had gone well and truly mad. How on earth could he be convinced that this girl, this woman, was everything he wanted – the axis of a world he was searching for, the one person who answered the inner voice he hardly even knew existed.

His body shoved away all sensible considerations and took her hand.

‘I think I am more likely to fall asleep on a floor than in your bed, Genna. My imagination is already running riot at the thought.’

Even in the dark he saw the return of her blush, her eyes widening. He cursed his wayward mouth. She might be distressingly honest but now he had scared her off before he had even begun to draw her to him. Fool.

‘Go inside, Genna. Tomorrow after I reach Nethercote and make myself presentable I will come see this place. Perhaps I can be useful.’

She didn’t move. Her hand remained in his and he did not let go as he ought. He brushed her cheek with his other hand and she breathed in.

‘We forgot our gloves at the inn. I didn’t even notice.’

‘Neither did I, I didn’t notice much else but you from the moment I you started reading.’

‘Marcus…’

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Go inside.’

She still didn’t move.

‘Genna, if you don’t go inside, I might do something thoroughly unforgivable.’

‘I can’t imagine anything more unforgivable than making me go inside after saying something like that.’

Her hand turned in his and without thinking his fingers laced through hers, drawing her to him, his laugh turned into a groan as his mouth brushed hers. Her lips were as soft and fragrant as a jasmine bloom but the slash of heat coursing through him at the contact was hotter than any Spanish summer, searing him from inside.

Her lips parted on a gasp, as if she felt the same shock of heat and near pain at the contact. He wanted to surge forward, take everything he could from the moment before it ended, but this was Genna and she mattered more than anything ever had. That one certainty held him still. His words a breath against the shiver of her lips.

‘Tell me you want this or tell me to step back. Whatever you wish, Genna. I’m yours to command.’

Her hands curled into the lapels of his coat, flattened, and he readied himself to be pushed away. He would not ruin this because of lust, no matter how intense. There was so much more at stake, more than he could have believed possible just hours ago. But they just slid up, over his shoulders, touching his neck – the healthy and the scarred with equal gentleness – before slipping into his hair with a whispering touch that set his nerve ends into a shuddering dance. Then she rose on tiptoes, touching her mouth to his, each word a caress of fire and light.

‘How can that be when I am already yours, Marcus?’

‘Genna…’

When they finally came apart her breath was shallow and broken and she buried her head against his shoulder. He cupped her head, caressing her back, trying to calm both of them from the pitch of desire set loose.

‘Marcus. What are we doing?’ She murmured against him.

‘I don’t know what you are doing but I think…No, I know I am falling in love.’

‘You cannot be.’

‘Well, I’ve never done it before so I’m not quite certain. It feels very definite though. I never knew it could happen like this, in a day. In an hour. Less. It is ridiculous but it is true.’

She was breathing as unevenly as he was, but she moved away a little, her hands pressed against his chest. If it was meant to keep him at bay, it was failing, it felt like she was drawing him to her though he kept himself still.

‘It is ridiculous. You couldn’t possibly…You never even liked me. Is this because of Lottie, to make her sorry?’

‘Would you forget about your sister? This has nothing to do with her, or only as much as she is the reason we met. As for not liking you…You infuriated me back then but I always I enjoyed arguing with you which says a great deal. Today…I saw you and everything I knew about you and everything that has changed in me fell into place. I cannot explain it but I know this isn’t a whim. I’ve been on the brink of death too often not to know when something momentous is happening. This is love. Whether you might someday come to care for me or not, I love you, Genna.’

Her hand clutched at his coat.

‘Marcus. Oh, God. I think Bidds put something in your ale. Or maybe it was the smoke. Or the story. This cannot be happening.’

He untangled her hands from his coat, his chest constricting in pain. Perhaps she was right, he had gone mad and this wasn’t…No, he had gone mad, but this was true… He knew her. Genna. He couldn’t turn away from that truth. He was in love. And a fool to pour out his heart like the greenest of green youths. He tried to speak lightly.

‘I should have kept quiet and wooed you properly. I’m sorry if I frightened you...’

‘Only because I so want it to be true. Perhaps I should go inside. Tomorrow you will wake and wonder what on earth made you say such nonsense. I shan’t remind you.’

‘But you want it to be true?’

‘Please go, Marcus.’

‘In a moment. Look at me.’

‘I’m too scared.’

‘Do you want it to be true? Answer me, Genna.’

She tugged her hands from his and covered her face.

‘I did seven years ago. I never meant to feel like this again. I don’t want this. It hurt too much…’

‘You…seven years ago? You were just a child.’

‘I turned eighteen while you were courting Lottie. I was only child enough not to realize how much I cared until she broke your heart and mine broke for you, but I was also happier than I had felt since I met you. I am simply awful and now you are making me simply awful again to be so happy that you say you don’t want Lottie.’

He wrapped his arms around her, trying to subdue the avaricious clamoring of his body as her warm curves pressed against him. There was no way he could disguise his arousal. He hadn’t been this hard and desperate since… another ‘since’ eluded him.

‘By that token I should feel awful that you feel awful but I don’t, Genna darling. I’m sorry I hurt you then, but I will do everything in my power to make you happy now. If you will let me.’

‘If… Oh, Marcus. Just seeing you makes me deliriously happy; all this is likely to cause me to expire. When I looked up and saw you sitting there, I… Oh, this cannot be happening.’

‘Well, it is. It has. I won’t let you regret it.’

‘I am no proper duchess, Marcus.’

‘I hope not. I much prefer an improper duchess. You will make a perfectly improper duchess. My duchess. But now I must leave so I can gather forces to lay my own siege for one very prickly but adorable woman. And you need forces if you are to face the reality of these scars in the light of day..’

She smiled, her fingers moving lightly over his face, her palm resting on the puckered rise of his scar.

‘I think I shall manage just fine. And It isn’t a siege if the door is open, is it? Are you certain you won’t stay?’

Every instinct was goading him to do just that, but he made it to the door, the cold night air swirling in around them.

Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, he realized. The first day in a new life he had never even dreamed of contemplating.

‘No, my lovely Genna. This is my Christmas miracle and I want to do nothing to sully it. And when I do finally sleep in your bed, you will be in it.’


***

Find Lara at the following links and don't forget to have a look at her books. They are brilliant!

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Happy Reading!



2 comments :

  1. Hello ladies! Wow, your advent stories are so lovely 😊 what a unique idea!

    Happy holidays xx

    www.aishettina.com

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