Three Kisses Before Christmas
Wolfstan reined his horse to a halt as a saddled mare burst through a cluster of trees and dashed straight for the Westbridge Park stables. He frowned and darted his gaze to the thicket and studied the dense woodlands for any sign of the rider. His resolve to stay in London, and away from Rebecca, had lasted all of ten minutes.
Six hundred seconds that Wolfstan had duped himself into believing his willpower was that strong. He still found it remarkable that he had convinced himself for even a passing second he could spend Christmas without one of her smiles. He was not a man who stumbled about in denial. He was done acting a deuced fool. Which was why, when Lonsdale had suggested sending Langley to call on Caroline and his sister, Wolfstan had broken out in a cold sweat.
There was nothing Wolfstan wanted more than the luxury of self-denial. He hadn’t ridden out to Westbridge Park because Lonsdale wanted to send Langley. He hadn’t come because he missed Rebecca. He hadn’t come because he couldn’t conceive going weeks on end with the absence of her laughter.
He ought to preserve some pride and purge her from his system somehow, but he found daydreaming about her constantly much more diverting than beating himself up over the fact that he was in the throes of unrequited love.
That had never bothered him. He was a patient man, perhaps too patient. But with the news that his cousin was in the market for a wife, waiting passively for Rebecca to take notice of him as a man was no longer an option.
His frown deepened when no one emerged from the woods. His gaze flicked to the mare again. He did not recognize the horse, and Wolfstan was as familiar with Lonsdale’s stables as his own. And as the horse was saddled there had to be a rider dislodged somewhere, perhaps even injured.
Instinctively, he steered Sergeant in the direction of the trees and nudged him into a gallop. Mason was in London and Caroline was with child. That left Rebecca or a stable hand as the rider. Wolfstan’s chest pulled tight at the thought of Rebecca being hurt.
The overhead shadows of the trees cast a momentary hold on Wolfstan’s thoughts as he entered the thicket. Shadows danced on the forest bed as he urged Sergeant on and surveyed the surroundings for any sign of the rider.
The air was alive with the sound of birds, crickets, and frogs in an ever-growing competition of melody. He inhaled deeply, the scent of moss and nature welcoming after the stale city air that thickened London. The sun would set soon and the temperatures dip.
Every nerve ending in Wolfstan fired to life.
“Why do I keep getting myself into these fixes?” a small voice muttered off to his right. Wolfstan drew to a halt, his senses on alert as he studied the surrounding vegetation.
He knew that voice.
He would know it anywhere.
“Rebecca?” he called. His voice traveled on a soft breeze, bouncing off hundreds of rustling leaves.
A moment’s pause, then, “Wolfstan?”
“I’m here.” Wolfstan nudged Sergeant into the direction of her voice, trotting deeper into the forest, eyes sharp and assessing. Where the devil was she? She ought to be making her way to him. Was she hurt?
He swore he heard a small curse.
“Rebecca?” he called again, this time more insistent. He gripped the reins tightly. “Are you injured?”
“Not exactly,” she answered. She sounded more put out than in pain. Relief swamped him.
He frowned. Her voice had come from directly overhead. An echo? He pulled Sergeant’s reins and cocked his head to the sky.
“I’m over here.”
His gaze tracked the sound of her voice, finding her perched on a tree branch. Of all the things he’d thought he’d find, Rebecca, arms circling the trunk for dear life, would never have crossed his mind.
He blinked up at her. Even in a bloody tree, one look at Rebecca Flowerdy and Wolfstan knew he would never get back all the pieces she had taken from him over the years. They were hers. Always. Forever.
“How the devil did you get up there?”
“I climbed, obviously.”
He ought to have seen that coming. “Why?”
She shook her head. “I’ll explain later. Can you help me down?”
Wolfstan bit back a grin. “I’m not sure. You have this wood-nymph quality up in the tree. I believe it quite suits you.”
He laughed and nudged Sergeant until he leveled beneath Rebecca and held out his arms. “Take my hands.”
“What if I fall?”
“I won’t let you fall.” When uncertainty lit her gaze, Wolfstan went on, “Trust me, Rebecca.”
“I do . . . It’s just . . .”
“Are you afraid of heights?”
“I’m heavier than you might think.”
“I am stronger than I look,” Wolfstan countered.
“I do not think you understand. I am much heavier than I appear.”
Wolfstan allowed his gaze to dip over her figure. There was nothing heavy to his eyes. She was all delicious curves and sweet, puckered lips. Her eyes were the color of summer meadows and turbulent seas, depending on her mood, her rich copper hair had featured so many times in his dreams it was laughable.
But heavy? No.
“You must not believe me when I say I am a lot stronger than you give me credit for.”
Her eyes narrowed on him.
He grinned in answer.
“Very well,” she yielded after a considerate pause. “But if you let me fall I shall never forgive you.”
He nodded, motioning with his gloved fingers for her to take them.
With a deep breath, she unclasped one arm from the tree as she lowered to her haunches and reached for his hand. Her fingers gripped his tightly as she tested his strength before releasing her remaining arm and reaching for him.
He slid his fingers between hers.
“Now what?” she asked.
“You launch yourself into my arms.”
“I have never been more serious in my life.” Wolfstan was sure the devil danced in his eyes. “Take the leap, Rebecca Flowerdy. My chest is broad.”
The corner of his mouth lifted when she rolled her eyes. But take the leap she did. His muscles contracted, and he caught her in his arms as he’d promised. Her lips grazed the shadow of his jaw and the puff of her breath on his cheek was the most erotic thing Wolfstan had ever felt in his life.
He could not savor the moment, though, for Sergeant did not expect the added weight and reared, dislodging Wolfstan and Rebecca without an ounce of shame.
Rebecca braced herself as Wolfstan caught her up in his arms. The horse bucked, and her heart gave an uneasy beat as she shut her eyes to the fall. Arms of steel tightened around her waist.
A loud grunt fired in her ears as the jarring impact knocked the breath from her lungs.
The landing could have been worse, Rebecca told herself. She was no stranger to tumbling from horses. She had tumbled from her fair share. It was still hard, but not as hard. Wolfstan had borne the brunt of it.
Several seconds passed as she listened to the hooves of yet another horse grow dimmer and fade into the chirps and croaks of the songs of the forest. Then, slowly, she became aware of the rise and fall of Wolfstan’s chest beneath her. Goodness! She lay flat on her back over him!
She twisted around, the tangle of her skirts and their legs keeping her trapped against his chest. Her lashes fluttered open to gaze into his familiar brown eyes. He stared at her, a peculiar expression on his features. She blinked, marveling at the warmth of his eyes. Always warm, humor never far. They were the kind of eyes that made you feel safe and protected under their guard.
He shifted beneath her, a mere flex, but enough to draw her awareness to the fact that she was fully plastered against him, his arms keeping her locked against his chest.
“You said you would not let me fall.” Her attempt at humor came out strangled. And she suddenly found herself reluctant to rise.
“Never said Sergeant would not give it a go.” His voice sounded strained too. Why she couldn’t say. She was the one shamelessly draped over him by way of her skirts.
Rebecca pressed down on his chest preparing to untangle herself when she became aware of a sharp object pressing into her thigh. Her brows drew together. “What do you have in your pocket?”
He stared at her unblinkingly. “I beg your pardon?”
She wiggled over the hardness. “Is it some kind of rod for your horse?”
A sudden fit of coughing seized him. A shade of red spread across his cheeks. He rolled out from under her, taking her with him as her skirts entangled with his legs.
Rebecca blinked up at him as he was now the one on top and she at the bottom. He froze above her. His eyes caught in hers.
“Are you alright?” Rebecca asked.
She had known Wolfstan all her life and never had she seen him this out of sorts. He scrambled off her, waving her concern away as he turned his back to her. Rebecca frowned, but stood and dusted off her riding habit. If Wolfstan wanted space to recover from the fall, she’d give him that.
She winced when a cramp shot through her foot. Balancing on a branch of a tree seemed to have tired her feet. She still could not believe Dream had bolted. She had merely stopped to inspect a cluster of plants she’d never before encountered. Instead, she had come across something much more terrifying—a fox.
“Christ,” Wolfstan said as he slanted a brief glance at her. “I cannot believe you asked me that.”
“Whether you are alright or the rod?”
“Please do not say that word again.”
“Rod?” Rebecca lifted a brow. She would like to believe that she knew everything there was about Wolfstan. But she had never, not once, ever, seen him this uncomfortable. “Is it not a rod?”
“What it is will surely embarrass you.”
“Care to wager on that?” What could Wolfstan ever do or say that would embarrass her? Rebecca could not think of a single thing.
“Never mind that, why did your horse bolt?”
“We happened upon a fox.”
He frowned. “A fox? Are you sure? I didn’t see any fox.”
“I certainly did not imagine its beady eyes. I escaped the fox only to be felled by my steed.”
He turned to peruse her then. “I thought you said you weren’t hurt.”
“I’m not.” She shrugged. “Except for my pride. That is very much bruised. How did you know I was here?”
“I saw a lone horse burst from the thicket of trees and came investigating. And found you.”
“Well, at least Dream knows to go home.”
“She is a recent purchase?”
Rebecca nodded. “A gift from my brother. Still a bit skittish, and horses like foxes less than I do.”
A grunt. “We should head back.”
Rebecca nodded and headed in the direction of the stables. She paused when Wolfstan hunched to retrieve something from the ground. “Are you coming?” He nodded and fell in beside her as they started through the woodlands. “Mason returned to London.”
“I know. Lonsdale called on me. He is worried about Caroline.”
“Spying for my brother, are you?”
“I have better things to do with my time than to spy.”
She grinned at him. “Such as sow your youthful oats?”
His gaze whipped to her, equal parts horror and astonishment. “Christ, Rebecca. You cannot say such things!”
“Why not? I heard Lady Chestbury mention Lord Haywood is still sowing his wild oats which is why he is not actively looking for a wife. You aren’t actively looking for a wife, so I gathered you must be sowing these oats as well.”
“Bloody hell,” Wolfstan barked out. “That’s beside the point. You should not be saying such things!”
“Why? Does it not mean merrymaking?” Her eyes widened. “It does not, does it?”
“No. It does not.”
Rebecca laughed. “What does it mean then?”
“Nothing I care to speak about.”
“Settle down. I am only teasing. And it’s hard not to hear about things when I have ears. It is one of the perks of being inappreciable.”
“You are not inappreciable.”
“I’m a wallflower, ergo of no account.”
“You do not behave like any wallflower I’ve ever met.”
“That is because you have known me all my life. Which is why I am allowed to mercifully tease you.”
“It’s also impolite—”
“To tease you?”
“About topics such as the one you are teasing about, yes,” he all but growled.
“Are you truly going to leave me in the dark about its meaning?”
“You are no fun.” Rebecca pouted. “I thought we would be able to speak about such things.”
“Very well. You have no topics you wish to tease me about?”
He swiveled, and Rebecca nearly stepped into his chest. She stopped in time and craned her neck to stare up at him. Lawd, had he always been this tall?
His gaze delved into hers as he asked, “Are you in love with Langley?”
Startled, Rebecca took a step back. “Why would you ask me that?”
“Can we not speak about such things?” he tossed back at her, brows raised.
She had said that. But they had never spoken about Langley before. Not once. His question was thoroughly disorientating. Did Wolfstan know about her childhood infatuation? First Caroline and now him. Who next? Mason?
Heat colored her cheeks and she looked away. “Love is a strong word.”
“It’s a simple word,” Wolfstan countered. “A simple feeling.”
Rebecca shook her head and stepped around him, resuming the walk back to the manor. “Says the man who has never been in love.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
Why was he harping on the subject? More pressingly, why did she not want to answer? Because she had never been in love? She’d been smitten with Langley yes, but could that be considered love?
Wolfstan seemed to wait for her answer, his gaze flicking at her every few seconds. She had no response for him. Could he be teasing her? He would not be aware of her inner conflict. So Rebecca offered him what she hoped to be a playful smile. “My heart is captured daily by the sunrise.”
He said nothing.
Not even a smile.
Lame, Rebecca. “I’m afraid my poor teasing has quite affected your mood.”
“It has not.”
Rebecca sent him a skeptical glance. He looked tense. Troubled. “You must be worried for Sergeant.”
“He will not have wandered off far. I’ll send a groom after him.”
Rebecca nodded and quickened her pace. The silence that stretched was suddenly awkward. An invisible chasm erected out of poorly considered teasing, she thought. But where had their banter gone wrong? His wild oats, whatever that meant? Langley? Lawd, the rod remark?
She frowned at him.
Something unsettling weighed on Wolfstan’s mind. Something that troubled him greatly. What could it possibly be? Rebecca wondered if he would confide in her if she asked. She wondered if she wanted to know at all.
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