Part of the Holiday Anthology series
The holidays can be a challenging time, between chilly weather, incessant good cheer from strangers, and carolers whose rejoicing must always be rendered at full volume. Christi Caldwell and Grace Burrowes offer a pair of Regency novellas featuring characters for whom Yuletide is anything but merry and bright… until love makes a holiday visit!
Enjoy An Excerpt
Lady Mistletoe’s Holiday’s Helper by Grace Burrowes
“The decorations must be exquisite, Lady Margaret. Beyond perfection, though within the bounds of good taste, of course.” Lord Marcus Bannerfield paused on the landing, and Meg had no choice but to pause with him. “Do I make myself clear, my lady?”
Lord Marcus was Meg’s most prestigious customer thus far, meaning his budget for holiday decorating would also be the most prestigious, if Meg had anything to say to it.
“I do understand, my lord. Lady Mistletoe’s Holiday Helpers take great pride in delivering not simply satisfaction, but magic. Your Yuletide decorations will outshine anything ever to grace this house.”
Meg made the standard claim in her standard cheerful-but-brisk tones and proceeded down the steps. Lord Marcus’s home was large, as befitted the second son of a marquess, and touring the premises had nearly put her behind schedule. The house was immaculately maintained. The sconces gleamed, every pair of curtains hung in symmetrical folds, even the wainscoting bore a patina of beeswax and elbow grease worthy of a royal domicile.
His lordship remained on the landing, hands behind his back, like a ship’s captain gazing out to sea on a fine, breezy day. The ocean before him was a soaring domed foyer complete with a black and white marble parquet floor, enormous potted ferns, and a slight, churchlike echo. The circular skylight at the top of this architectural marvel should have provided at least one beam of golden sunshine, but the weather refused to oblige.
“Magic is the invention of an overactive imagination,” Lord Marcus said, “but a decree has gone forth from Lady Elizabeth Hennepin that I must decorate the house, so decorate the house, I shall. I ignore my sister’s proclamations at peril to my domestic tranquility. Where do you propose we hang the mistletoe?”
His expression held a hint of belligerence, as if this sororal decree was a challenge of some sort. Lord Marcus managed the marquessate’s business for his father, and he had also recently taken on the raising of his late brother’s orphaned children. Meg had done her usual research and been surprised that a man carrying that much responsibility had time to consider a task that usually fell to the servants.
Lord Marcus was shaping up to be that most vexatious of all holiday curses—the meddling client.
“We have time to ponder where the kissing boughs should go, my lord. I shall have an estimate to you by noon tomorrow, complete with sketches.”
Meg expected him to direct her to send the estimate to his man of business, his solicitors, some earnest, overworked minion who would let her careful figures and drawings sit for at least a week.
“That’s the soonest you can send it along?” His lordship came down the steps, a powerful, graceful man prowling confidently through his own domain. He topped six feet by an inch or two, wore his brown hair in an old-fashioned unpowdered queue, and had brown eyes, probably courtesy of his French mother.
He was a departure from the usual Saxon lordling, all blond, blue-eyed breeding with a solid oxlike build. Lord Marcus had plenty of muscle, but his physique was that of a fencer or an equestrian rather than a pugilist. For his house, the decorations should emphasize light and elegance, rather than an overabundance of greenery.
And he would doubtless, doubtless, oversee every bit of the setting up and taking down, because a peer’s heir had nothing better to do than quibble over the location of his kissing boughs.
“I have other appointments this afternoon, my lord, else I should have your estimate completed by the end of the day.” Meg pulled on her gloves and stuffed her sketchbook into her satchel, barely resisting the urge to consult her watch. Papa’s timepiece was the only possession of his that Lucien had allowed her to keep. Meg liked to hold it and to look at it. She did not like to feel another day slipping past with no signed contracts to show for her hard work.
Lady Mistletoe’s Holiday Helpers, some of whom were barely old enough to know their letters, depended on her.
As did Charlotte.
“We’re in for snow,” his lordship said, peering through the window beside the imposing front door. “I have a few more ideas regarding the nursery decorations. They will affect the budget.” He took Meg’s cloak down from a hook. “I don’t suppose you’d consider sharing your midday meal with me so we could discuss my suggestions?”
Meg moved around him to glance at the street and bit back an unladylike observation. A few lazy flakes drifted from a pewter sky.
“I do not care for snow.” She hated snow, hated the glee clubs cluttering up street corners with their yodeling and bell-ringing. Hated the cold and darkness and the whole holiday season. “If the weather is turning foul, my lord, all the more reason I should be about my appointments. One’s progress is slowed by disobliging precipitation.”
“Disobliging precipitation?” He enunciated each syllable, as if the phrase were a new addition to his French vocabulary. “Ah, you came on foot rather than force a team to wait about in the cold. I do understand, and I propose a compromise. You bide here for another thirty minutes to share my luncheon and resolve my plans for the nursery, and I will put my second town coach at your disposal for the remainder of the afternoon. Have we a bargain, Lady Margaret?”
Had he made that offer with a smile, a leer, or a hint of innuendo, Meg would have turned him down flatly and accounted the last hour entirely wasted. But he’d posited sharing a meal with her as a means of continuing a business consultation, and she was so very hungry. Cold weather did that and left her with blocks of ice where her feet should be, and with nothing but cross words for Charlotte, who deserved all the good cheer in the world.
Then too, Meg’s next appointment was halfway to Chelsea, a substantial hike while toting a heavy satchel. “I cannot tarry long, my lord.”
He replaced her cloak on the hook and set her satchel on the sideboard. “I am rather pressed for time myself. My sister has also reminded me that children still require a holiday token on Christmas Day. I must brave the mercantile establishments in hopes of procuring these gifts, for nothing will do but I choose them myself.”
He offered his arm, something he’d not done previously. One did not refuse such a courtesy from a marquess’s heir.
Meg laid her gloves on the sideboard and accepted his escort. “Is that another edict from your sister?”
“Not from my sister, from my own upbringing.” His lordship led Meg down a corridor lined with Dutch landscapes, gleaming pier glasses, and exquisite porcelain. The claret-colored carpet—easy to embellish such a shade with holiday flourishes—looked to have been woven for the exact dimensions of the corridor, the hues chosen to complement the paintings.
His lordship had good taste, which made decorating his house at once a greater challenge and greater delight.
“Papa stood back from the holiday madness,” he went on, “allowing my mother enormous latitude with decorations, entertainments, and menus, but he insisted that his imprimatur be on the presents bestowed in the nursery on Christmas morning. I expect my father will pay a call here on Christmas Day, and I refuse to be bested by the old fellow simply because he has a thirty-year start on a family tradition.”
Male competition made perfect sense to Meg. That Lord Marcus referred to the Marquess of Innisborough as Papa was harder to explain.
“You aren’t concerned about spoiling your nieces?” she asked.
He opened a door for her, warmth and the scent of good food gusting into the corridor. Meg scooted into what was probably a breakfast parlor, for the windows faced east and showed a garden already dusted with snow.
“My nieces have lost both parents, my lady,” Lord Marcus said, holding a chair at the right hand of the head of the table. “A mountain of gifts would not give them what they truly long for, would it?”
“I suppose not, so why trouble over a holiday token?”
A procession of staff arrived—two footmen, two maids—all carrying dishes placed over warming trays. One of the maids set a serving of silver utensils before Meg, and she was assailed by memories of the years when this scene could have been taken from her own upbringing.
Lord Marcus excused his domestics with passing thanks. “I prefer to serve myself,” he said. “Less food goes to waste that way, and I have more privacy. Would you care for some soup? Looks like a humble pepper pot today.”
“On a day such as this, nobody with sense refuses a steaming bowl of pepper pot.” Meg took good portions of the bread and butter, too, though she did feel guilty. Charlotte would relish such a meal and would delight in the heat thrown out by the fireplaces bookending the room. A little girl should not have to spend her entire winter swaddled in two of her mother’s shawls.
Lord Marcus took his seat at the head of the table and served the soup. Meg passed him the bread and butter, realizing she should have waited for him to be seated before helping herself.
If he noticed that faux pas, like a gentleman, he pretended to ignore it. He took up his soup spoon, so Meg did likewise.
“How do you celebrate your holidays, Lady Margaret? Surely a woman who has raised Yuletide decorating to a professional art must delight in every little detail of the season?”
“Oh, I do enjoy Yuletide.” She offered that bouncer just as something—a peppercorn?—went down the wrong way and sent her into a most unladylike fit of coughing.
Lady Margaret Entwhistle was a pretty, prim puzzle, and Marcus was more than willing to be distracted by the conundrum she posed.
She wasn’t impressed by his rank, though as the daughter of an earl, she’d doubtless met many men with titles or expectations of a title. She also wasn’t overly concerned about her appearance. Her dress, while made of good-quality green velvet, was at least two years out of date. She wore her dark hair in a severe bun and eschewed jewelry of any kind.
No woman could have signaled less of an interest in Marcus as a man or as a marital prize. She’d marched about his house, scribbling notes, making quick sketches, and peering out of windows as if she were considering purchasing the property. That experience, of showing his entire home to a woman he barely knew, had been oddly intimate.
When Lady Margaret set down her spoon and began coughing, Marcus rose to thump her gently on the back. The woman responsible for decking his damned halls could not be allowed to expire before the project was even begun. Eliza would never let him hear the end of such a misstep.
“Would you like some water?” he asked as Lady Margaret’s coughing fit subsided.
She nodded, pressing her table napkin to her lips. “Peppercorn,” she said, “down the wrong way.”
He poured her a glass of water from the carafe on the sideboard. Outside, the snow was thickening, from a flurry of wispy flakes to a steady white cascade. That was all to the good—fewer patrons cluttering up the toy shops—but had Lady Margaret truly intended to hike across Mayfair in this weather?
“I’ll have a word with Cook,” Marcus said. “Can’t have one of the children choking on a stray peppercorn, can I?”
“I should have been more careful. Tell me about the children, my lord.”
While her ladyship made short work of her soup, Marcus resumed his seat and passed along what little he knew of his nieces.
“Two females aged eight, though they are not twins. One will shortly turn nine, her sister not until next year. Their names are Amanda and Emily, and they should arrive next week, weather permitting.”
Lady Margaret looked up from her soup. “Surely you do not expect the house to be decorated by next week, my lord? Christmas is more than a month away.”
Surely he had been hoping for that very thing. “Perhaps not the whole house, but at least the foyer. Lady Eliza insists that the children’s first impression of their new home be welcoming. You asked me earlier why I intend that the girls have gifts on Christmas Day. They have lost their parents, and no doll or storybook can replace that loss.”
“But you will give them dolls anyway?”
Well, then. No dolls. “They likely already have entire ballrooms full of dolls, but I want them to have something. Their father doubtless carried on Papa’s tradition, and that tradition matters. Their mother made a great to-do over the holidays, as my mother did, and if I can maintain that emphasis for the girls, they will know I valued their parents and share those traditions. You look at me as if I’ve taken leave of my senses.” Even Eliza approved of this reasoning, though she pronounced it a convoluted excuse to celebrate the holidays.
Lady Margaret set aside her empty soup bowl. “I very much doubt that you and your senses ever part ways, my lord. Children are perceptive. They grasp when we deal with them in good faith and when we’re putting on a show. That you want your nieces to be welcome and comfortable will mean more to them than any set of fancy hairbrushes or box of paints.”
“Paints? Isn’t nine a bit young for paints?” Hairbrushes sounded entirely manageable.
Lady Margaret smiled, the first smile he’d seen from her. “Nine is not too soon for paints if the child is artistically inclined. I was using watercolors by then and demanding oils by the time I was twelve.”
“And you were allowed to work in oils?” How… odd.
The smile, so unexpected and mischievous, winked out. “I was, which my brother still thinks was a signal error on the part of our parents. Your soup will get cold, my lord.”
“Your brother would be the Earl of Webberly?” Marcus had glanced at DeBrett’s, finding it curious that a titled widow would engage in any sort of commerce at all.
“My brother is the twelfth Earl of Webberly. That ham looks delicious.”
Her ladyship was hungry, in other words, and intent on arriving to her next appointments on time. Marcus appreciated punctuality, but was his company really of so little note compared to a boring old ham?
“Will you celebrate the holidays with your brother’s family?” Marcus asked, taking up the carving knife.
“Certainly not. My business is at its most frantic over the next six weeks, and traveling to the family seat is out of the question.”
He passed her a plate bearing two slices of ham. “Did your late husband approve of a venture that demands so much from you at a time of year usually reserved for family gatherings?”
Her ladyship rose, taking her plate to the sideboard. “Major Entwhistle would well understand why I have taken on the Lady Mistletoe business. Would you care for mashed potatoes, my lord?”
What sort of answer was that? “Please.”
She served herself a generous portion of potatoes. “What day are your nieces scheduled to arrive?”
Her ladyship sat back down with less than studied grace. “You want the foyer decorated by Tuesday?”
“Is that a problem?”
She stared at the meat and potatoes before her. Marcus imagined the sound of gears whizzing and the beads of an abacus clicking back and forth.
Her ladyship took up her knife and fork. “I can have the foyer looking festive by Tuesday evening, though, mind you, the job will be only halfway complete. I will rob Peter of his gold ribbon and Paul of his fresh oranges. Your cook will mutter foul oaths at the mention of my name, and your housekeeper will have worse than that to say about me.”
Cook likely uttered foul oaths regarding her employer. “You sound pleased, my lady.” She looked pleased too. Her gaze, usually a steady blue-eyed regard, had taken on a gleam of ambition.
“When I contemplate what your lordship will pay for expedited service, I am very pleased indeed. This is good ham.”
Of course it was, and yet… she went after her victuals as if she’d meant the compliment sincerely. Perhaps her kitchen wasn’t properly staffed. Good help was hard to find and harder to keep.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.” Marcus took a bite and found the ham a bit salty. “If you were purchasing presents for two little girls, what would you buy them?”
“That depends on the girls. Tell me more about your nieces.”
“I hardly know them. My brother preferred to raise his family at Banner Hall, and I seldom had enough leave both to visit there and to see my parents here in London.”
Lady Margaret paused, her hand upon her wineglass. “You were in the military?”
“For ten years.”
“Did you know my husband? Major Peter Entwhistle? 52nd Foot?”
“I am sorry. I did not.”
She took a sip of her wine. “What fine libation you serve, my lord.”
That was as awkward a change of topic as he’d heard her make, and her conversation generally leaped about a good deal. Perhaps she still grieved for the major?
“I have had good luck with Rieslings of late. Now, what do you advise regarding gifts for my nieces?”
“You might consider asking them what catches their fancies.”
Ask them? Ask small children regarding holiday wishes? “And if they want a coach and four? A trip to Paris? A yacht? Matching pink unicorns?”
Lady Margaret gazed out at the garden rapidly disappearing beneath a blanket of white. “What any grieving little girl would want, more than a coach and four, would be to make happy memories to balance the sadness filling her heart. Take your nieces to walk in the park on a snowy day, show them how to aim a snowball at a tree trunk. Read to them, let them join you at breakfast if their manners are up to that challenge. Spend time with them, because one day, they will lose you too.”
At some point in that diatribe, Lady Margaret had ceased making a suggestion regarding Marcus’s nieces and instead offered a confession of sorts.
“How long has your husband been gone?”
“Four years. He loved the military. He was never in England for very long, and he would not hear of me following the drum.”
“I am sorry.” Had Major Entwhistle bothered to make happy memories with his wife? Marcus suspected he had not. “Our discussion has ranged far afield from dolls and mistletoe. Perhaps we should sample the apple tarts?”
Lady Margaret took two from the basket he held out to her. She did equal and thorough justice to both, while Marcus contented himself with one. The meal had not been as enjoyable as he’d hoped, though the food was, as always, plentiful and good. He wasn’t sure what exactly about the shared repast disappointed him, but then, what had he expected?
Lady Margaret was a busy woman, and Marcus was… a busy man? He rang the bell-pull, signaling that the table could be cleared, and when the tea had been brought in, he poured out for his guest.
“I wish you did not have to brave the elements,” he said. “This afternoon would be best spent before a roaring fire with a good book.”
“I will leave the roaring fire and good books to you, my lord. I have two more calls to make, and the use of your coach will be much appreciated.”
“Why do you do it?” he asked. “Why spend your holidays prettying up other people’s houses?”
She dusted her hands over a plate that held only apple tart crumbs and aimed a bright smile at him. “I simply enjoy decorating for the holidays. For a few weeks of the year, we are encouraged to make our dwellings as cheerful and inviting as possible. I have a knack for it, so why shouldn’t I put my skills to use for others?”
Why? Because the daughter of an earl had no business dealing in trade, and yet, Marcus admired a woman willing to demonstrate initiative and ingenuity. Heaven knew he had no idea how to make a house cheerful and inviting.
“I must be on my way,” her ladyship said, rising. “My thanks for a splendid meal, and I will have my estimate to you by noon tomorrow.”
Marcus got to his feet and held the door for her ladyship. He murmured a brief instruction to the footman tidying up at the sideboard, then escorted Lady Margaret to the front door. The lingering sense of something lacking about what should have been a sociable meal on a winter day would not leave him.
“A week from now,” her ladyship said, “this foyer will look very different. The air will be laden with cloves and cinnamon, the bannisters wrapped in red velvet ribbon.”
Marcus draped her cloak over her shoulders and smoothed the fabric out from the collar. “You even plan the scent?”
“Of course. When you walk into a beautiful old home, then catch a whiff of mildew, your impression of the place is unalterably diminished. Your abode will be fragranced with seasonal joy, my lord. Depend upon it.”
She pulled on her gloves—mere kid, and in this weather—and tied her bonnet ribbons beneath her chin. The figure she cut was stylish, though Marcus noted a bit of darning on her right middle finger.
“I will look forward to our next meeting,” he said, though he wasn’t sure that was true. He had never met a woman less given to seasonal sentimentality. As his own stores of that commodity were thin indeed, he and her ladyship should have got on famously.
Marcus’s guest cast a weather-eye around the foyer. “Before I am through, you will probably dread the sound of my voice, but you will love the impression your home makes on your holiday guests.”
Holiday guests. Marcus mentally shuddered at the very notion.
Her ladyship squared her shoulders and stood back for the butler to open the front door. The town coach sat at the foot of the steps, and Marcus had ordered the floor bricks heated, but he still didn’t like to send her out in such weather.
The footman from the breakfast parlor passed him a paper-wrapped parcel, which Marcus held out to the lady.
“Take a few apple tarts, please, Lady Margaret. Your day is long. Bustling about must be hungry work.”
She looked at him, then at the apple tarts. Some impossible longing flickered in her gaze, and he thought for a moment she’d refuse his gift.
“That is very thoughtful of you, my lord. Thank you.” The tarts went into her satchel, and then she was out the door.
“Shall I build up the fire in the library, my lord?” the footman asked.
A sensible request on such a day. The coach pulled away from the steps, the jingling of the harness muted by the falling snow.
“No, thank you,” Marcus said. “Duty calls, and I am its willing vassal. I am off to practice pitching snowballs at tree trunks.”
“Very good my—my lord?” The footman was young and too new to his livery to hide his consternation.
“The children will be here next week, James. I have just been informed that my pitching arm may be my greatest asset in their eyes.”
“If you say so, my lord.” He bowed and withdrew, leaving Marcus to puzzle over Lady Margaret Entwhistle. She’d been singularly un-charming, as ladies went. Most unmarried women, and a few of the married ones, were bold in their appreciation for his company. Lady Margaret had been appreciative of the soup, the ham, the wine, and the tarts… but she’d assayed not a single flirtation in his direction.
More to the point, she’d made it very clear he need not attempt any flirtation in her direction either.
Which should have been a very great relief indeed.
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