Three Kisses Before Christmas
Wolfstan Robert Ward, Earl of Wicke and Selborne, flipped the invitation to Willoughby Castle, a summons, really, back to front between his fingers in absent thought.
Langley was in the market for a wife.
The news did not surprise him, as Mason Flowerdy, the Honorable Viscount Lonsdale and his childhood friend, had informed him two minutes prior. Wolfstan understood his cousin’s sudden interest in marriage. Langley adored children. Had never made a secret of his adoration. Even at eight-and-twenty, Langley could not stroll past a baby without stopping and cooing over the infant for a quarter of an hour. By no means did Wolfstan hate babies, but what the devil did his cousin find so alluring? They smelled like vomit and piddle. They slobbered. They cried. A lot.
But that was beside the point.
Women would be lining up for Langley, Wolfstan was sure. Two years his junior, Langley had always been a favorite amongst the ladies, unlike Wolfstan, who kept mostly to himself. His interest lay with one woman only. Which was why the news of Langley’s interest in procuring a wife did not spark a flicker of joy within Wolfstan. In fact, the news brought with it only a string of curses and a distressingly wretched mood.
All because of Rebecca Flowerdy.
Ah, Rebecca Flowerdy.
The woman he loved.
To the point of bloody distraction.
Damn that fateful summer day at Westbridge Park fifteen years ago, the day Wolfstan’s life had unwittingly changed forever. The day he and Langley had visited Mason and happened upon Rebecca, nine-years-old at the time, in a field of flowers and tall grass, being bullied by Jim Parsons, the son of a resident farmer.
Wolfstan rubbed his temples.
He would never forget her eyes, tears brimming in their innocent depth as she stared up at him. A feeling of warmth had spread across his chest, and Wolfstan had vowed, from that day forward, he would always protect Rebecca Flowerdy. He had felt like a bloody hero in her eyes.
That feeling of warmth never left. With each passing year, the meaning of that affection grew and spread through his system like the roots of an ancient oak tree. So rooted was he at the heart, he could not possibly hope to move from the ground on which Rebecca Flowerdy walked.
Each time she cast a smile his way, laughed at something ridiculously mundane, shot him a look of pure humor, she took a piece of his soul. Every single time. He felt bloody bare. Naked. Picked dry. Beyond a doubt, Rebecca’s smile rattled the ground beneath his well-polished boots.
There was only one problem.
Rebecca Flowerdy was smitten with another man.
A bloody mess.
“Wicke? Have you lost your hearing?”
Wolfstan looked up at Lonsdale, bearer of wretched news and brother to the woman he loved. No, he had not lost his hearing. He had lost something much more valuable. His moment.
“Does Rebecca know?” Wolfstan asked, redirecting whatever topic Lonsdale had brought up.
“About Langley? I’m not sure. Caro informed me. She might have passed on the news to Rebecca. They left for Westbridge Park three days ago.”
That was news to Wolfstan. Normally, the family traveled together. “Your wife left without you?”
“I escorted them and returned. The doctor ordered Caro to rest for the duration of her pregnancy. I still have matters to finalize in London before I retire.”
Wolfstan nodded. “You must be anxious to join them, then.”
“I am,” Lonsdale answered. “Which brings me to my visit. When are you joining the festivities at Willoughby Castle?”
Lonsdale frowned. “You join every year.”
“This year is different,” Wolfstan told Lonsdale.
Because every year he regretted it more than the last. The only reason he attended was because of the proximity to Westbridge Park. And every year he would listen to Rebecca dreamily sigh at the mention of Langley’s name, an infatuation that had followed her for Christ only knows how many years.
Wolfstan had reached his limit of those sighs.
Which was why he had decided to forgo merrymaking this year altogether. Distance seemed pivotal to get a grip on himself. If there was any grip to be had, he mused bitterly. Yet the cruel irony still amazed him. The moment he decides to pass over the winter frolics, Langley decides to take a wife?
He must be cursed with rotten luck.
Rebecca had never spared him a second glance, at least not one with stars in her eyes. Wolfstan was all too aware of how firmly planted in Langley’s shadow he stood. Rebecca must be walking on bloody clouds.
Wolfstan was not at all sure his heart could take the thrashing of his cousin and Rebecca falling into each other’s arms. If watching her moon over Langley had been disheartening, bearing witness to her soft blushes and dreamy eyes as she fawned over his cousin. That Wolfstan could not do. Refused to do.
Rebecca was not one to fawn.
And Langley might choose not to court her, but his cousin would be a fool to let Rebecca slip through his fingers. Langley was no fool. Who the hell could resist all that luscious copper hair waiting to flow through a man’s fingers like a waterfall of silk. Bloody Hell. Wolfstan balled his hands into fists at the mere thought.
You are the deuced fool.
Yes, he was.
He dragged both hands through his hair. Not as vibrant as hers. Bland really. A color he shared with the bark of a tree. He preferred sunsets to earth.
“Cannot see how this year is different.” Lonsdale’s sharp eyes honed even more. “Are you troubled by circumstance?”
“Absolutely not,” Wolfstan lied. He had never told his friend he hungered after his sister. And yet hunger was properly inadequate. What he felt ran much deeper. It simmered in his soul. Ever present. Never offering any peace. Her scent intoxicated him. Her lips beckoned. The melody of her voice enticed the beat of his heart. He collected the notes of her laughter like a pirate hunted for jewels at sea.
A hopeless moonstruck fool.
Lonsdale smiled. The sort of half-smile that spoke more than any words and gave Wolfstan gooseflesh. “Perhaps the time has come for you to take a wife as well.”
If you only knew, old chap.
Wolfstan would have married Rebecca in a heartbeat had she fallen in love with him and not Langley. Age, to him, was of little consequence since he had surely been cursed with the sentiment of romance. Fated to love a woman in love with another man.
“Not interested in matrimony?” Lonsdale queried.
Lonsdale nodded thoughtfully. “I married young and I’ve been happily married for five years.”
“Five-and-twenty is not all that young and you might sing another melody in another five years.”
“I will forever sing this one.”
Hopeless. The both of them. Plagued by fantasies and starry-eyed dreams. Beyond saving. Lonsdale, at least, had won the woman he loved, so in a sense, while in some ways the same, they were polar opposites.
“Rebecca will miss you if you stay in London.”
Wolfstan inwardly scoffed at that. Miss him? Rebecca? He doubted she would even notice his absence, let alone his presence. Not entirely inspiring for a man such as him—a man conflicted by unrequited love. Sometimes Rebecca made him wonder if he hadn’t fallen into delirium. He wanted to snap out of the spell she had cast over him. Sooner rather than later. His moods, lately, had become fouler, every day worse than the day before. Even the sight of his cousin, blissfully unaware of his feelings, was enough to set off his ire. Poor fellow.
“Have you picked names for the infant yet?” Wolfstan decided to steer the subject to a less maddening topic.
“Caro said she will know once she locks eyes with our son.”
“Son? What a mightily arrogant assumption.”
Lonsdale grinned. “Son,” he said with conviction.
Wolfstan’s lips quirked. He fought the urge to cross and uncross his legs. Failed. Dammit. His brain simply refused to be thwarted by distraction, pounding on one track, and one track only. Will Langley court Rebecca? Will Rebecca’s dreams finally come to fruition? Will his forever be stomped into dust?
“Since you are forgoing festivities this year, I suppose I shall ask Langley to ride out to Westbridge Park and call on the women.”
Wolfstan’s head whipped to Lonsdale.
Damn it all to hell.
“Mason is going to have a fit of the vapors when he learns you have not been resting as you ought to.” Rebecca Flowerdy assisted her sister-in-law, Caroline onto the bed with her arm wrapped protectively around her waist.
“I tend the flowers with my hands, not my belly,” came Caroline’s tart reply.
“As you are not reclining vertically when you do so, I cannot see how that is relevant.”
“You haven’t said anything about the rumor that Langley is in the market for a wife.”
Because Rebecca’s heart still hadn’t quite settled into a steady rhythm at the news. She had been smitten with Langley ever since he had boldly declared on her ninth birthday “Rebecca Flowerdy, you are as pretty as a peach. Save me your first kiss.”
One, she hadn’t been pretty. Her face had been smeared with mud that day. Second, her hair had fired in all directions after Jim Parsons had cruelly pulled her braided coiffure apart. And third, she hadn’t quite grasped what he meant by saving him her first kiss, but he had declared her pretty as a peach.
And that had been everything.
She looked away from Caroline’s sharp gaze when a flush stole over her cheeks. She had never forgotten Langley’s words and the butterflies they had provoked in her nine-year-old self. A sense of abundant hopefulness, that she was not as ugly as the Parsons boy had claimed.
If it hadn’t been for Langley’s words, and Wolfstan who had defended her, Rebecca might have lost all confidence that day. Too many times had she been teased and mocked for her hair and freckles. He had given her a precious gift all those years ago—the right to be herself—and she had never shed a tear over a boy’s teasing again.
What’s more, Langley’s words had morphed into hopes and dreams beyond her imagination. Her perfect hero had been born, and Rebecca had never stopped dreaming. Like a princess waiting for her knight in shining armor, her hopeful, romantic-self had saved her first kiss for Langley.
It ought to also be noted that she was no longer that nine-year-old girl. Rebecca had grown into a woman, and while she did not mind saving her first kiss for Langley, and she dearly wished to be kissed, she had no desire to enter the arena as a potential wife. For any man.
Her heart lay elsewhere.
A gambling hell she secretly owned and ran with the help of Mr. Alexander Lance, the manager of her club. Speaking of which, she had received a letter from him, one that burned a hole in her pocket or rather, her sketchbook that she had placed it in.
“He is of the age to do so, I suppose,” Rebecca said.
“That is your opinion?”
“I cannot see how I should have an opinion at all,” Rebecca noted and inwardly grimaced at Caroline’s look. Her sister-in-law was no fool. She had swindled many a man out of a pretty penny back in the day before she met and fell in love with Mason.
“Then you do not care if another woman snatches him up?”
The question brought a flutter of wings to her belly. Did she care? Rebecca wasn’t sure. So much of what she felt was rooted in the words of a thirteen-year-old boy and the dreams of her first kiss she had fantasized over growing up.
“Langley must have an idea in mind as to his potential bride.”
Caroline scoffed. “I heard nothing to that effect. Rumor has it he will pick a bride at the Stapleton festivities.”
So soon? If Rebecca wanted to part with her first kiss, it would seem she would have to do so fast. A shiver trickled down her spine.
“This is the year, Rebecca,” Caroline suddenly announced, settling comfortably into the pillows. “You are not on the shelf yet. If you want to marry Langley, now is your chance.”
Well . . .
Constructing castles in the sky and stuffing them with dreams was one thing, entering the possibility of that reality quite another. Rebecca preferred the outskirts rather than the center. The shadows rather than the light. The outdoors rather than a ballroom. Much like her brother, she shied away from crowds and bustling places.
Also, there was Knightley’s.
Honestly, there was a sort of thrill about being at the helm of an establishment that men fell slaves to. And her involvement in the club could not be overlooked.
Which meant marriage was off the table. But Caroline did not know that. No one did. A first kiss, she could do. She had certainly fantasized about it enough. But to wed? She was not as innocent as everyone believed. And if society ever discovered her secret, she would be ruined beyond repair.
“I’m happy with my life, Caro.”
“Have you not mooned over the man for years now?”
Caroline raised a brow.
Well, not since she acquired Knightley’s, at least. “You knew?” Rebecca questioned.
Caroline’s brow lifted even higher.
Rebecca sighed. “Mooning is a bit of a stretch. How did you know?”
“I am more perceptive than most.”
“Langley has never sought me out,” Rebecca pointed out, hoping Caroline would leave the matter be. “We haven’t spoken in ages.”
“But this is Langley.”
But this is also Langley. Even if she was inclined to step up to the challenge, which she was not, he was a Ton favorite. As a wallflower, despite his sweet words all those years ago, she went unnoticed for the most part. Emphasis on for the most part.
Because Rebecca wasn’t just any wallflower, she was the worst sort. And by worst, Rebecca meant the kind of wallflower that completely shut down when attention fell on her at large gatherings. Even thinking about it, a nasty chill spread through her belly.
She clamped up like an oyster protecting a precious pearl. But what came after she clamped up was what had her turning tail for the nearest escape. Instead of blending into her surroundings, Rebecca inflamed them.
She had never gotten into the swing of being an invisible wallflower. Oh no, the blazing tips of her ears and pink blotches that broke out over her face did not allow her to blend into the shadows. Sweat would not bead daintily upon her brows, it rolled over her face droplet after droplet like a waterfall. What was worse than a clamped up wallflower who couldn’t blush properly?
A sweaty, blotchy one.
Which was why she rarely ever attended events anymore.
“You know what happens when I attend gatherings, Caro. I have never been equipped for social settings. Besides, I’d have to present myself at the Stapleton festivities and I can hardly go on my own. You are with child and Mason will not attend without you.” Neither did Rebecca want to subject herself to the humiliation of leaking perspiration over the Stapletons’ marble floor.
“So you will give up?” Caroline asked.
Rebecca could not very well admit she could never marry Langley, so she said. “I will give the matter some thought.”
“Thoughts breed excuses. Actions breed results.”
Rebecca decided not to dwell on that. So she changed the subject. “Does a man not search for a wife in season?”
“I gather he did not want to be crushed by the onslaught of overeager mothers, though, how much of the news is pure speculation, I cannot say.”
Rebecca nodded absently.
Save me your first kiss.
The heart of a woman, she had come to realize, was a strange object indeed. The concept of time appeared but an illusion and reason did not exist within its bounds. Hers, for example, had clung to those wondrous words like a lifeline. And if ever there was a time to act upon all her dreams, it was now. Before Langley took a wife.
So why was she hesitating?
He had suggested she save her first kiss for him. And while Rebecca held no illusion that he had obsessed over the words as she had, would she be a fool not to act upon her wish to gift Langley her first kiss?
“Shall we devise a plan to make him yours?” Caroline asked. “Lord knows, I need a distraction from my belly and the child growing within. I cannot sleep for all his kicking.”
“You are supposed to stay in bed, Caro. If Mason learns you’ve been disobeying the doctor’s wishes he will lock you in your chamber.”
“Why do you think I’ve orchestrated these two blissful days? Mason has been suffocating me with his list of things I cannot do or consume. I needed space to breathe.”
“Two days are not much,” Rebecca pointed out skeptically.
“They are enough,” Caroline said on a happy sigh. “What say you? Shall I start plotting?”
“Please, no. You should rest. Let me worry about my future.”
“I can do both at the same time.”
The corners of Rebecca’s mouth lifted. “I have no doubt.” She paused. “Truth be told, I am not certain Langley and I suit.” Rebecca shrugged. “As I said, we haven’t spoken in ages.”
“That only means you are human. No one truly knows whether they suit until they discover that they do.” Caroline smiled. “So what is it to be? What awaits you this festive season?”
A trickle of excitement sparked in the region of her belly. A first kiss awaited her. She might not know what fate held after that, she might be a touch terrified, but Rebecca was suddenly sure, beyond logic, about one thing: her life was about to change. The sensation of certainty started in the center of a bud blooming inside her breast and spread until it felt like an irrefutable fact.
Rebecca smiled at Caroline. What awaited her this season?
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