Saturday, December 29, 2012


Here we are at the end of Celyn and Edward’s story at last…
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve loved writing it!
If you missed Part I on December 12 on the Ramblings From This Chick website, then it will be posted here on January 1, 2013.
I hope you’ll watch for news, an excerpt and the unveiling of the gorgeous cover for my June 2013 book, THE SECRET LIFE OF LADY JULIA, coming in January!
I'd love to hear from you, so please leave a comment, visit me on Twitter, Facebook or drop me a line by email at

On The Sixth Day of Christmas My True Love Gave To Me…
Six Postal Pick-ups

I live on the very edge of the City of Calgary, literally a quarter mile for the city limit sign. That qualifies our small subdivision as being out in the country, and it means we have to go to a postal outlet at a local grocery store to pick up mailed packages.
That store is about fifteen minutes away, and the lines there at Christmas are long, long, long. I should hate it, but it’s the attitude of the people in line that make the difference. I’ve had some wonderful conversations this year, and the little things, like chatting with a stranger in the postal line always help make Christmas merrier and much less stressful.
In January, I’ll hate making that trek to the post office again, but for now, thank you, Canada Post, for adding a little extra opportunity for sharing the joy of Christmas with strangers in a


Part 7
By Lecia Cornwall


Edward stalked along the hall to his room.
What the hell had just happened? He hadn’t gone to Celyn’s room with the intention of making love to her, and he definitely had not expected to deflower her.
He should have thought it through.
Now what? Honor would demand that he marry her, if she were a suitable match. He almost wished it were possible. He cursed Caradoc. Who was Celyn’s mother? A scullery maid, one of the villagers? His father would forbid him to marry her, yet he could never marry a woman like Millicent Granger. Not after Celyn. Edward realized he had never been in love with a woman before, not like this. There had been infatuations and lust, of course, but never love. If this was the blissful feeling the poets harped on about, it was damned unpleasant in Edward’s opinion. Perhaps poets enjoyed suffering, but he did not.
He opened the door of his room, and resisted the urge to slam it behind him. It would wake half the castle, and he’d have to explain why he was prowling the halls in the middle of the night, rumpled and half dressed. It was fortunate no one had seen him leaving Celyn’s rooms.
He leaned on the door and looked around his silent, empty, lonely room. He wanted nothing more than to turn around and go back to Celyn’s bed and fall asleep with her in his arms. But that was impossible. What would people think of her, and of him? He told himself he didn’t give a damn, but he did.
He poured a tumbler of Caradoc’s fine whisky, and sat down in the chair, glaring balefully at his cold empty bed. He could still smell her on his hands, still taste her on his lips. She was like a ghost, haunting him. He was hard again, wanting her, even now he knew the truth of things. “Damned poets,” he muttered.
He heard a faint cry in his dressing room.
Hope filled his breast. “Celyn?” he crossed to the half-open door.
A pair of pretty golden green eyes regarded him, but they weren’t Celyn’s.
It was Matilda. In his trunk, on the softest, most expensive cashmere blanket, the cat had installed her family in regal luxury. The cat gazed at him as if she was indeed royalty, and he didn’t have the heart to expel her. Instead he scratched her soft head, and she rewarded him with a deep rumbling purr and closed her eyes. Only a cad would evict a mother and her three babes so close to Christmas. He marveled at that sentiment. At Wintercross, he probably would have summoned someone to take the cat away. Here at Collingwood, his elegant, expensive clothing was being worn by a pack of rag-tag Welsh villagers. His valet was sleeping in the soft comfort of his best sheets. His fine spices, exotic candied fruits, and oldest brandy were all being used to cook a makeshift Christmas dinner. He would have laughed at the foolishness of it all, if it was some other gentleman of his acquaintance. Instead, he stroked Matilda’s soft fur and smiled. He didn’t feel anger, or righteous indignation.
He felt happy.
The simple folk of Collingwood had given him so much more that the value ordinary belongings. This was the best Christmas he’d ever known.
Only one thing troubled him. He’d asked Celyn what she wanted him to give her. Instead, she’d given him everything. He shut his eyes and buried his forehead in his hand.
Matilda chirped a soft feline inquiry, and pushed her head into his other palm. How easy it was to give the small things that made others happy.
He hadn’t known that until now.
He gave the cat a final pat. At least he had some company. He poured another tumbler of whisky and lay down on the bed, still dressed, with Celyn’s scent surrounding him, and took what comfort he could in that.

Christmas Eve

Celyn felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. Edward. He’d come back. She turned, a smile on her lips, ready to open her arms, hoping, wanting—but Catrin hovered over her instead.
            “Mrs. Jones is having her baby. Old Gwen got into the cider last night and she isn’t fit to help out. Mrs. Jones wants you.”
Celyn got up at once, and dressed, glancing around the room for telltale signs of what had happened here, in the room, in that bed. There was nothing out of the ordinary, except for a smear of blood on the sheet, and Edward’s rumpled cravat, lying on the floor. She kicked it under the bed, and smiled at Catrin, hoping she hadn’t noticed anything. “Tell Mrs. Jones I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said, sending Catrin out. She limped to the washstand and scrubbed the stain out of the sheet. She retrieved his cravat and held it to her nose, breathing in the scent of his skin and his soap, reliving every delicious moment. She stared at the fine linen in her hand. What must he think of her? She should return the cravat immediately, but she couldn’t face him. She should burn it then, get rid of it.
She crossed to the fireplace and stared into the flames like a ninny. She remembered the last time she’d gazed into a fire, when she’d tossed herbs into the blaze, made a wish. She twisted the cravat in her hands. Was Edward Kingsley her true love after all? It was a terrible pity. The fates that’d worked their magic to bring him here shouldn’t have bothered. It would never work. He was an earl, and she was, well, no one at all. The fates were not very good at their job, apparently. Maybe they didn’t hear well, or had a cruel sense of humor, and that’s what she got for dabbling in magic, and believing moldy old legends. She grabbed the fireplace poker, let the wrought iron dig into her palm, intent on impaling the cravat, but she couldn’t do it, couldn’t consign even that small part of him to the fire.
She pushed the cravat under her pillow instead, used the poker as a cane, and hobbled downstairs.

It was full daylight when Edward woke again, still dressed, with the empty tumbler still in his hand.
“Don’t worry, it’s only a little past nine o’clock,” Arabella said lightly, comfortably seated in the chair by the fire, holding Matilda in her lap. They all stared at each other for a long moment.
Arabella was dressed in a red gown, her snow-white hair set in the ringlets and curls of a bygone age. She looked magnificent. “I came to see Matilda. She likes you, and that’s high praise indeed. She doesn’t give her affections easily.” The cat blinked in agreement. “Nor does Celyn, which is what we wished to speak to you about, Matilda and I.”
“Oh?” Edward said, getting up, warning prickling along his spine. Had he been seen leaving the tower after all? He reached up to straighten his cravat, found it missing. “Shall I ring for breakfast?” he asked.
Arabella shook her head. “Oh, we’ve eaten. Hours ago—and Mrs. Jones is busy at the moment, having a baby. Her fifth, I think, or perhaps it’s her tenth?”
He looked at her in surprise. “Today?”
“These things happen when they’re meant to,” she said calmly. “Her Majesty had fifteen children. It seemed we were always either preparing for childbed, or recovering from it.” Arabella’s eyes were clear today, lucid, with none of the confusion that he’d seen earlier. “But that’s not why I’m here. You think she isn’t good enough for you, don’t you?”
The old lady was regarding him with speculation in her blue eyes. “Matilda?” he asked with a vague smile, though he knew exactly what she meant. Guilt gnawed at him.
“No, I’m speaking of Celyn, and you know it. Do you know why I have hoped for so many years that the King will arrive at Collingwood?”
He cleared his throat. “I understand His Majesty promised to come to Christmas dinner.”
She nodded. “He did, but who expects a King to remember every promise he makes? I once heard His Majesty promise the Earl of Pendleton that he would allow him to teach him to swim. Preposterous! He hated water. He likely forgot that promise five minutes after he made it, just as he has long since forgotten his promise to come and dine with me.”
“I see.” Edward said, though he didn’t. He wondered if he should call for Celyn, let her take Arabella away, but he wasn’t ready to face her yet. “May I escort you back to your rooms, my lady?” he asked gently. “We could take Matilda, bring the kittens, and the blanket—”
Arabella laughed, a light silver sound, like Christmas bells. “That’s not necessary. I know the way, and our dressing rooms connect. We need only leave the doors open and Matilda will decide for herself whether she wishes to stay or go,” she said sensibly, and the cat sighed in agreement. “I came to see you, my lord, to explain a few things you need to know, before what occurred last night occurs again.”
“How did you—” he began, but Arabella waved her hand.
“I knew as soon as you carried her up those stairs. I may be old, but I know passion when I see it.”
Edward straightened his shoulders. “I assure you it will not happen again.”
“A pity,” Arabella said. “She might have been the making of you, though her birth dictates she could have any man in the kingdom. It’s a pity that Caradoc never told her the truth.”
“The truth?” Edward said, running a hand over his face, catching the faint ghost of Celyn’s scent on his fingers. He put his hand in his pocket. “I have already guessed that she is Caradoc’s daughter,” he said. “Who was her mother?”
Arabella grinned, and rose, setting the cat on the floor. Matilda padded into the dressing room in search of her family. “Pour me some whisky and I’ll tell you a tale you’ll not expect.”
Edward poured a drop of whisky for her. “Oh, pish! It won’t do me a bit of harm—fill it up!” she commanded. She took a large swallow. “Sit down, my lord,” she said, resuming her own seat.
 “Once there was a young Welsh earl who fell in love with the daughter of an English duke. The lady was very pretty, though she was as silly as a plum duff. I do believe she loved the Welshman as much as he loved her, especially since he was charming, handsome, and very clever. He wanted to marry her. He offered for her, but her father refused, saying the match wasn’t suitable, that his daughter must marry for power, money, and title, not love. He sent the girl to court to catch the eye of a prince, since His Majesty had so very many sons, you see. She did indeed manage to, um—snag one, but there was no offer of marriage afterward. She was left pregnant, and had to be hidden away in the country. Her father added a few thousand pounds to her dowry and arranged a match with a marquess, a good enough marriage, but quite without love. The nuptials were set to take place after the child was born. The child, of course, would be left on the parish to starve or survive as it would, never to be mentioned again. The young mother did the one single, sensible thing she ever did in her life—she wrote to the only friend she felt she could trust, her Welsh earl. She asked him to come to her, to take the child when it was born, see that the babe had a good home. He came at once, of course. Her second letter, to the Prince who had dallied with her, led to dire threats from the Crown that the child’s parentage must remain a secret forever.” Arabella sipped her whisky. “There’s probably a contract signed in blood somewhere in Whitehall, couched in suitably vague language regarding the child’s true parentage. Do you understand me, my lord?”
Edward nodded, his limbs numb, his heart in his throat. “I trust Celyn doesn’t know?”
“No. There were plenty of rumors at court, the usual scandalous stories, but no one knew what had became of the child. I think Caradoc hoped that someday, her mother would come back to him if he kept her secret. I hoped Caradoc would tell Celyn the truth before his death.” She sighed. “I don’t think he meant to be cruel by not telling her. I just don’t think he could bear to give her up. He thought of Celyn as his daughter, you see, saw her mother in her every day of his life. He loved Celyn very much.”
“I trust the lady married her marquess?” Edward asked.
“Of course. She dared not cross her father. He was quite a powerful man. Caradoc wrote her letters, telling her of Celyn’s progress, but she answered only once, to tell him not to write again. She never, ever saw Celyn, or even asked about her.”
“Is her mother still alive?” Edward asked.
“No. She turned out to be one of the most odious ladies in England, if you ask me, and we’re better off without her. She died shortly before Caradoc. I think he died of a broken heart when he heard the news, but he still carried her secret to his grave.”
She smiled at Edward. “So you see, our Celyn is of royal birth, my lord. I have always harbored a hope that someday her royal father would come looking for her, and arrive as you did, on the doorstep, demanding to see his child. Her name means Holly in Welsh, by the way, and Beauchamp is the name of the inn where she was born. It was left to Caradoc to christen her, and it was just this time of year that she arrived here, the best Christmas gift he could have given to the people of Collingwood. She is beloved by everyone, as you’ve seen, our princess.”
Edward took a long swallow of whisky. “Who else knows?”
She regarded him with the kind of patient smile one reserves for idiots. “Does it matter? I suppose someone knows. There are people at court whose job it is to keep track of these things. Royal by-blows are nothing new, of course. Why do you suppose Caradoc gave her the upbringing he did? He taught her as if she were a princess, prepared her, just in case. If it were to come out, I think it would take our Celyn up in the world. Not that it should be revealed, by any means. I imagine it would be quite shocking to discover you aren’t who you thought you were. She might be expected to marry for power and consequence, instead of love, and Celyn could not live without love.”
Arabella drained her glass and set it aside. “There now. That was quite enjoyable.” He wondered if she meant the whisky or the revelation. She went through the dressing room to her own door. “I will leave you to do as you think fit. I can see you are a sensible gentleman, or I would not have told you. It is still a deep secret, I’ll remind you, and a sensitive one.”
Edward opened his mouth to speak, to tell her—what? That it made no difference to him who Celyn’s parents were, that she was the most incredible woman he’d ever met? What more could the old lady expect of him?
Arabella put a finger to her lips. “No, don’t bother to say anything now. Think on it awhile. There will be consequences no matter what you decide to do, but I trust you’ll make the right choice in the end.”
Edward stood in the middle of the room in yesterday’s clothes and watched as she shut the door behind her, leaving him in baffled silence once again.


“PUDDING!” Mrs. Jones screamed as another pain hit her.
Celyn squeezed her hand. “The pudding must be steamed for three hours, no more, no less,” she repeated the cook’s instructions.”
“Yes, and dress the goose in—” she screwed her eyes shut, her face reddening.
“Swaddling clothes?” Catrin asked.
“Lay it in a manger?” Annie Stackpoole added. They giggled.
“BLACKBERRY SAUCE!” Mrs. Jones snapped. “And make sure there the toffee for the cyflaith is ready by midnight if I’m not done by then.”
“Not to worry. I can see the babe’s head now,” Mrs. Stackpoole said. “Nice dark hair.”
“Could be any color, really” Annie said. “Hard to tell.”
“Doesn’t matter, as long as the little lad’s healthy and strong, like his pa.” Mrs. Jones said.
“Let’s hope he’s just a wee bit taller, p’raps,” Mrs. Stackpoole said. Mr. Jones barely topped five feet, where his wife was nearer to six. He weighed barely ten stone, while his missus was nearer to fifteen, but it was a love match from the moment they’d set eyes on each other.
“Are you so sure it will be a boy?” Celyn asked. 
“Oh aye, a mother knows,” Mrs. Jones said. “This one’s a prize fighter. MINCEMEAT!” she screamed out as another pain came.
“Plenty of suet, extra raisins, a touch of brandy,” Celyn murmured.
“And don’t forget the rum sauce for the PLUM PUDDING!” Mrs. Jones bellowed, bearing down.
“Here he comes!” Mrs. Stackpoole said, making ready to catch the babe.
The room fell silent as the child arrived, tiny and delicate and wrinkled, his eyes tightly shut. He opened his lungs and let out a wail that belied his size. 
“A boy indeed,” Mrs. Stackpoole pronounced. “A fine lad, and a big ‘un, too.”
Mrs. Jones beamed. “We’ll call him Luke, if Mr. Jones is agreeable.”
“A good name for a Christmas child,” Mrs. Stackpoole nodded.
Celyn washed the baby and wrapped him in a fine linen sheet, monogrammed with Edward’s initials, and his coat of arms. The child gripped her finger tightly in his tiny fist, and she felt tears fill her eyes. “He’s beautiful,” she said. “How wonderful. The best Christmas gift of all.” She laid the baby in his mother’s strong arms, watched Mrs. Jones cry and kiss the lad’s downy head, the picture of maternal adoration.
“Aren’t babies grand?’ Catrin sighed, and Celyn couldn’t have agreed more.
Celyn spent the rest of the day directing the women in the kitchen as they seasoned, salted, basted, and gossiped. Phoebe and Louisa went out with the party to gather greens—boughs of pine, fir, ivy, mistletoe and holly, and the men dragged in the Yule log, a tree trunk big enough to fill the cavernous fireplace in the great hall and burn for the full Twelve Days of Christmas.
Celyn avoided the library, and any other place she might possibly see Edward. Surely her feelings would show in her eyes, and embarrass them both. Better to stay away from him. She wondered just how she was going to manage to avoid him for the next twelve days.
His name seemed to be on everyone’s lips. “His lordship helped chop down the Yule log.” “His lordship climbed the oak tree and pulled down the mistletoe.” “His lordship is planning games for the children and a horse race for the men on Christmas day.” “His lordship promised to teach everyone how to waltz on Christmas Eve...” Celyn couldn’t recall seeing people happier, or merrier. Aled nudged her. “Here. His lordship has entrusted me with his family recipe for flaming rum punch,” he said, braving the women’s preserve of the kitchen to deliver the recipe. She took it, read his scrawl on the scrap of paper.
By the time the first evening star appeared in the sky, the great hall was ready. Celyn felt her heart quicken at the sight of the decorated room. It was fragrant with greens, festooned with holly, and lit by hundreds of candles and the warm glow of the fireplace. It felt as if they’d stepped back three hundred years into the past, when Collingwood castle was brand new. Best of all, every soul at Collingwood was smiling, making merry together. 
When the women carried in the food and set it on trestle tables, a cheer rose, and the merry music began.
The table on the dais had been set for Edward, and he presided happily over the party. Arabella sat beside him, her red silk gown glowing n the candlelight. Phoebe was a vision in a white dress, trimmed with silver lace and ribbons. Louisa wore blue, her face aglow. There was a seat on Edward’s right hand, and Celyn slipped into it. “It appears we are to be lord and lady of the feast,” Edward said.
“I hear you brought down the Yule log single-handed,” she said, and he laughed.
“I? No, it took six strong men an entire hour to chop it down. I merely helped.”
“And the mistletoe?” she continued, drowning in the warmth of his eyes. That look lit a fire in her breast, which spread to every inch of her, made her breathless. She stared at his mouth, wanting to kiss him. “I hear you climbed a tree to reach the mistletoe,” she managed, repeating herself.
 “What’s Christmas without mistletoe?” he asked, his voice vibrating through her, staring at her mouth, too.
“And waltzing?” she asked.
“Phoebe was most insistent. It should be fun.”
She looked away, scanning the hall. It was impossible not to be merry with all the happy faces around her. Mrs. Jones sat in the back of the hall with her new son wrapped in another of Edward’s fine linen sheets, grinning from ear to ear, while Mr. Jones hovered anxiously around his wife with the rest of their brood—all except little Corrie, who was curled up on Edward’s lap, watching the party with wide blue eyes.
Mr. Carruthers, recovered enough to attend the party after helping Edward dress in his finest evening clothes, was in attendance. Even Childs, his lordship’s coachman, was there, warmly welcomed by everyone.
Celyn joined in the happy toasts to Edward’s health. The people of Collingwood loved their new lord every bit as much as she did, but there was joy in their love, hope, and a future. She had decided that once the girls and Arabella left Collingwood in a few weeks time, she would go as well. She wouldn’t go to Kingscott, though. She would continue on to London and look for a position as a governess, or a housekeeper, or a companion, and she would do her very best to forget Edward Kingsley. This would be her last Christmas at Collingwood Castle. The thought made her chest ache.
The dancing began, and Aled partnered Mrs. Stackpoole, demonstrating the old country dances for the young folk who didn’t know them until everyone was laughing too hard to dance at all.
When the waltz began to play, Phoebe hurried forward, and Edward rose to offer lessons to anyone sober enough to want to try. Once everyone knew the steps, he came to offer his hand to Celyn. “Would you care to waltz, my lady?” he asked.
She met his eyes, saw the earnestness of his request, the heat in his gaze. It took her breath away. She put her hand in his, and rose, and noticed Phoebe’s look of disappointment. She sat down again.
“I’m afraid my injured ankle would make me very clumsy, my lord. Perhaps Phoebe should be your partner. I am content to watch.”
But he refused to release her hand, and pulled her to her feet. “I don’t want Phoebe. I want you. Now put your foot on mine,” he said, setting a hand on her waist. A flare of heat shot through her, made her breathless.
“I don’t think this is a good idea—” she said, but the music began. Edward lifted her off the floor, held her aloft, his eyes on hers, and suddenly they were flying around the room, spinning in time to the music. It felt marvelous, and they laughed together. When he set her down, it was beneath the mistletoe. He kissed her, a long kiss that made everyone cheer, and brought hot color to Celyn’s cheeks. He plucked a berry and handed it to her. “I hope it will be the only berry you receive tonight, unless they are all from me,” he murmured, and her heart lodged in her throat.
“Sing, Celyn!” someone shouted, and the cry was taken up. Edward stood by her side, his hands clasped behind his back. How handsome he looked in his black coat, his crisp white linen. She recalled the cravat hidden under her pillow, and why it was there, and blushed, and the lump in her throat grew even bigger.
“Do you sing as well?” he asked. “How many other things are there I don’t know about you?” he asked. She was sure she would only be able to croak tonight.
She took her place in the middle of the hall, and Alun Stackpoole brought his harp forward to accompany her. The room hushed, and expectant faces waited for the first note. Edward stood with the rest, half in shadow, tall and elegant.
She could not sing. Her heart was breaking. She swallowed, but the lump would not go. Yet it was tradition. Her voice had been the gift she’d given Caradoc every year, and now she’d come to her last Christmas at Collingwood.  
Celyn shut her eyes and opened her throat, letting the pure notes of the ancient Christmas carol ring upward into the rafters of the old hall, to fill the whole castle with sound and love, and wishes for a bright new year that would come and go without her. There were tears in her eyes when she finished. Others were sobbing as well.
“That was beautiful,” Edward said as he helped her back to the dais. He kept her hand in his a moment longer than necessary. “Celyn, I have something to ask you, I thought I’d wait until tomorrow, or later, but I—” he began, but Phoebe tugged on his arm.
“Come and dance with me!” she begged, and but he held Celyn’s gaze. “
It’s Christmas Eve, my lord,” she said gently. “You’ve made everyone at Collingwood so happy, filled them with hope. You should celebrate. Go and dance.”
For a few minutes she watched Edward execute the steps of the country dance with elegant precision, until the pace of the music sped up, and he lost the pattern, ended up laughing. The whole of Collingwood laughed with him.
Collingwood couldn’t be in better hands. Celyn wondered if Caradoc’s spirit was here among them with the rest of Collingwood’s ghosts, and if they were pleased with the way things had turned out. She hoped so. She felt tears fill her eyes, blur her vision—part joy, part sentiment, part sorrow.
Quietly, as the party went on, she slipped away, and went to her room.


Edward turned to smile at Celyn on the dais, but her chair was empty. She’d gone, and it felt as if the light had gone out.
“She went upstairs a few minutes ago,” Arabella told him. “If you hurry, she won’t be asleep yet.”
He took the old lady’s papery hands in his. “I have decided to ask her to marry me.”
She smiled, warmth lighting her eyes. “You don’t need my blessing. It is what I hoped you’d do. Look around you. It’s what everyone hopes you will do. It’s the magic, you see.”
“They think this is because of a spell?” he asked.
Arabella laughed. “Of course they do. Oh, not the foolish one the girls cast every year. Celyn’s own magic—she’s cast a spell on all of us. She’s made us happy, and now everyone wants her to be happy and find true love. You’re a fortunate man. Imagine all her love turned upon you, my lord. That’s the kind of magic that makes it impossible to go back to how things were. Not without her.” She withdrew her hands and wiped a tear from her eye. “Go on—go and find her.”
Everyone was staring at him, their eyes filled with hope, and love. He felt his skin heat, wondered if was actually blushing. Louisa was grinning, her eyes bright. Mr., and Mrs. Jones exchanged a look of love, and met his eyes knowingly. “If you’ll excuse me for just a moment, I’ll be back soon,” he said, backing toward the door. “Please don’t delay the celebrations on my account. Eat some more plum pudding, or perhaps another waltz—” he realized he was babbling, and very nervous.
“Good luck, my lord,” someone called. “Best wishes.”
“Yes, thank you,” he managed. “Very much indeed.” Someone opened the door behind him and he left the room. Once he was outside, a cheer went up, and the music began again.
He climbed the stairs to her tower room two at a time. He had no idea what he’d say when he got there, or how he’d explain to his father that in the four days he’d been at Collingwood Castle, he’d fallen hopelessly in love, and was bringing home a bride. He could imagine the questions his stepmother would ask about Celyn’s background.
It didn’t matter. Princess or peasant girl, chatelaine or steward, all he knew was that with Celyn by his side, he could do anything. This incredible feeling of happiness was all due to her. She’d changed him utterly, and Arabella was perfectly right. He could not live without her a moment longer. Who she was was far less important than what she was.
He stood on the stone steps outside her door for a long time, trying to think of what he was going to say. He never thought he’d have to propose at all, had no idea how it was accomplished, what words needed to be spoken. Was there a set ritual, perhaps? Were the Rites for the Proposal of Holy Matrimony set down in the Book of Common Prayer? He should have checked.
He knocked, waited for her to answer, then grew impatient, and opened the door.
She was standing by the window, and she turned in surprise, her eyes widening at the sight of him.
He shut the door and leaned on it. “Celyn, I came to ask you to —”
She turned away again, back to the view. “It’s beautiful here, don’t you think? I have always loved looking out over the hills, ” she interrupted.
“Celyn—” he began again. She held up a hand.
“No, please. I think I know what you’ve come to ask. I won’t be your mistress, my lord, or allow you to stay tonight. I can’t. I would rather—” She paused, and he knew she was crying.
He took out his handkerchief, his last one, and handed it to her. This was not going well at all. He stood next to her, stared out at the view, too.
“Collingwood is indeed beautiful. Once of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” he said. “I think come spring, we’ll rebuild the village, add a woolen mill, and more sheep. Can you picture it?” He pointed in the direction of the village, invisible in the dark. “We’ll build a school as well, plant an orchard just there, in that little valley. You’ll have to advise me what grows best here, of course.” He was babbling again, and she was staring at him as if he was daft. Perhaps he was.
She opened her mouth to speak, but he put a finger against her lips, and rushed on. “We’ll need to spend part of the year in England, but we’ll come here for Christmas every year, until we’re too old to make the journey any longer. Of course you’ll want to chaperone Phoebe in London, but after the Season ends, I have an estate in Scotland, which might do for a honeymoon.”
Her eyes widened. “Chaperone Phoebe? How could I? It must be a married lady of good social standing who sponsors her debut.”
“A countess is a lady of good social standing, especially if she’s the Countess of Wintercross.”
“The Countess of—” she stopped talking.
 “Indeed. Now will Scotland do for a honeymoon, or would you prefer to go somewhere else? I don’t recommend Kingscott—my sisters wouldn’t give us a moment’s peace. Wintercross is lovely, but just a day’s ride from Kingscott, so they’d find us there, too. I do have twelve other estates, and we could simply keep changing houses, leave them to guess where we are.”
“My lord, are you asking—”
He took her hands in his. “Edward. Everyone else calls me Edward. Don’t you think you should do so as well, especially if we’re going to marry?”
“Are we?” she asked him.
“As soon as you say yes,” he said.
She shut her eyes. “No. Edward no. What would you tell your father? You’re the heir to a dukedom, you can’t marry a—” she swallowed.
He smiled, and tried humor. “I’ll tell him you cast a spell on me, that you are my true love, and by the power of magic, I cannot do without you,” he said.
She looked at him sadly. “No—” she said again. 
“It doesn’t matter what people think, Celyn. Not to me. You’re perfect. Anyone fortunate enough to know you understands that. What matters is that I love you. Now will you say yes?”
She studied him, and he let her read the truth in his eyes, hoping there was as much love in his gaze as he saw in hers. It made his heart skip a beat.
She smiled and tilted her head to one side. “You haven’t actually asked.”
“Oh, I—yes, of course.” He dropped to one knee. “Will you do me the great honor of being my wife, Celyn? I will strive to be worthy of you every day of my life, and to make you happy, and—what else would you like?” He shifted his knee. “You can have anything—just say yes. This floor is cold.”
She laughed and dropped to her knees as well, tears flowing down her cheeks, and kissed him. “Yes.”
The sound of singing rose, glorious male voices raised in harmony, and for a moment he thought it was more magic, an illusion born out of his own happiness, but she broke the kiss and smiled, listening.
“What is that?” he asked.
Plygain,” she said. “A Welsh tradition. The men gather before the cock crows on Christmas morning to sing in the dawn. It means it’s Christmas, Edward.”
He kissed her again, and she sighed, began to fumble with his cravat. He caught her hand in his.
“Wait,” he said. “We have to go down and tell everyone the happy news.”  
She laughed. “We have time. Plygain will go on for hours yet.”
“But even if the men are occupied, the others will—”
She shook her head. “There’s a toffee pull, too for the women and children—cyflaith. Another tradition that takes hours.” 
“I see,’ he said, and began to undo his own cravat. She smiled and kissed him.
“Merry Christmas Edward,” she said.
He pulled her into his arms. “Merry Christmas, love.” He had never been so happy, or so merry. 
It was a feeling he intended to keep in his heart every day for the rest of his life.


Friday, December 28, 2012


5 Crazy Cats

We share our home with five cats. We didn’t set out to have that many. Strays arrive, and some stay. I am a magnet for the homeless cats. Tommy, for example, arrived on a snowy night last March (on my birthday), and stayed when his owners couldn’t be found. He’s a perfect fit with the other cats and the dog, and sits beside me while I write, my faithful muse.
As Christmas approached this year, we feared Tommy might be ‘The One’.
My father used to nail our Christmas tree to the floor, and use heavy wires to tether it to the wall. He said that some year a cat was going to try to climb the tree.
It never happened, but family prophecy has a way of coming true.
With a new cat in the house, young and wild, we had no idea if Tommy would turn out to be the tree climber of family legend. We bought lots of unbreakable decorations, including bells that ring just like the ones in It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’m pleased to say that although Tommy (and the other cats) have been ringing the bells and granting angels their wings at an amazing rate, our tree remains unclimbed and intact. Tommy is not ‘The One’. 
We are still waiting for the crazy tree climbing cat of family lore.


Part 6
By Lecia Cornwall


The rescue mission turned into a parade of sorts. Aled and five strong men met Edward as they crossed the park, burdened with the stag, while Edward carried Celyn, Matilda, and her kittens.
“Hasn’t been such a stag seen in these parts in twenty years,” Alun Stackpoole declared, who was at least as old as Aled. Davy grinned from ear to ear as he proudly bore the weight of the beast.
The castle gates opened, and they entered the courtyard, which was filled with every soul in the place. Edward couldn’t recall ever receiving such a joyous welcome anywhere, in all his life. He was thumped on the back by the men, and kissed on the cheek by the women. The kittens were taken from Edward’s pockets, safe and sound, and presented to Louisa, while Matilda wound anxiously around her ankles. Louisa gazed at Edward as if he was a hero, and he truly felt like one, especially when he read the warmth in Celyn’s eyes when she looked at him, saw the joy in her smile.
Mrs. Jones alternated between delight at the opportunity to create a lavish Christmas feast, and concern for Celyn’s ankle. She took charge of everything, and directed the bearers of the stag to the kitchen yard to prepare it, and ordered hot water, tea, and bandages for Celyn, and led Edward toward the settee in the library, where she directed him to put Celyn down. He found he didn’t want to let her go at all. She withdrew her arm from his neck as he stepped back.
 “Thank you, my lord,” she murmured.
Before he could reply, tell her that it had been his sincere pleasure to be of assistance, he was jostled aside by the women of Collingwood, every one of them anxious to see to Celyn’s injury, each with her own bit of advice to offer. Edward found himself standing on the outside of the circle of happy chatter, as usual.


Edward wandered the castle, looking for a way to be of help, since he found himself enjoying the sensation of participating in the life of the castle. He felt useful, welcome, and surprisingly happy.
In the courtyard, it turned out that preparing a stag required a number of hearty toasts to the health of the beast itself, even though it was too late for such a sentiment. The ale had been flowing like water for some time before Edward’s arrival, and he dutifully accepted a tankard, and saluted his dinner before he left the men to their task.
He entered the kitchens, only to find that he was interrupting the women of Collingwood, who were busy gossiping and baking under Mrs. Jones’s direction, having finished the task of bandaging Celyn’s ankle. The chatter ceased abruptly as he entered the room, and the women cast sly looks and simpering smiles at him and each other. He nodded and left as quickly as he’d arrived. There was a great deal of giggling as he departed, reminding him of home.
His sisters giggled exactly like that when there were plotting something. He shook off the prickle of foreboding that climbed his spine and kept walking.
He ended up back in the library, finding himself wanting Celyn’s company, but she’d been taken upstairs to rest, and only Phoebe and Louisa occupied the room.
Phoebe leapt to her feet as he entered, her eyes shining. “Lord Wintercross! I am so glad you’ve joined us. I have so many questions to ask.”
“Call me Edward,” he said, in a generous, happy mood.
She drew him to the settee and settled him there, and he recognized the look in her eyes—that particular shine, the fluttering lashes. Were girls everywhere the same? His sisters got the same coquettish look when they wanted something, whether it was to entreat him to escort them to a ball, or to beg him to introduce them to a particular gentleman they fancied, or to get him to agree to meet one of their female friends who fancied him.
“We-ell…” Phoebe began flirtatiously.
“She wants to know what the ladies are wearing in London this year,” Louisa interrupted from the window seat, where she was curled up with a book.
“Oh, I do indeed!” Phoebe gushed, not perturbed by her sister’s interference. “What is the most popular color?”
Edward tried to recall what the ladies had worn at the last ball he attended. He’d probably spent much of the evening trying to avoid Millicent, as he did at every ball where they’d both been present, so he would not be obliged to ask her to dance. Millicent wore pink, a color she favored in all its various shades. He’d learned to hate pink, but since Phoebe was wearing a pink sash on her gown, he could hardly say so.
“I have five half sisters, Lady Phoebe. Margaret has blue eyes, and says there is no color more fashionable than blue, especially the shade that exactly matches her eyes. Sarah says gold is the most elegant shade, since it makes her blond curls shine. Anne favors green—”
“That’s Celyn’s best color,” Louisa put in. “Don’t you think Celyn has pretty eyes, my lord?”
Phoebe put a hand on Edward’s arm, dragging his attention back to her own concerns. She pressed close and stared at him, her eyes wide. “What of my eyes? Which shade would best suit me?” Her eyes were gray, like Millicent’s. Edward swallowed. Would a woman, confronted with this same question, or a professional modiste, recommend pink? He couldn’t be sure.
“Debutantes most often wear white, from what I recall,” Edward hedged.
Louisa smiled. “Ha! An excellent answer, my lord,” she said, “Phoebe hates white.”
Phoebe frowned. “What of lace, sashes, bonnets, and shoes?” she demanded. “Surely they aren’t white as well?”
Edward wished for once that his sisters were here. They could offer expert advice, since fashion was all they thought about. If he’d learned anything from them, it was that a gentleman did not dabble in advice on a lady’s apparel, save to compliment the wearer on her taste, elegance and beauty.
An idea struck him. If his sisters couldn’t come to Collingwood, perhaps he could bring Collingwood, so to speak, to them. “I think you must ask my sisters about all this, since they are far better suited to answer than I. In fact, I’m sure they’re already poring over the fashion plates for next Season, even though it’s four months away. If you write them a letter, I shall deliver it.” He watched her face fall slightly. “And I will deliver it with my suggestion that you be invited to visit them at Kingscott, and perhaps in London for the Season, if Celyn—and Lady Arabella—are in agreement.”
Phoebe’s face lit with pleasure, and she clasped her hands. “Truly? How wonderful!”
“My stepmother would be pleased to have you visit, since we are kin, after all, through Caradoc,” Edward said.
To his surprise, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly on the cheek, just the way one of his own sisters might. It warmed his heart, to make her so happy.
“Oh, thank you, my lord! It is the most welcome invitation in the whole world. I shall go upstairs right now and begin composing my letter to your dear sisters!”
She rushed away in a flurry of petticoats, and Louisa watched her sister go. “We haven’t the money for a Season, my lord. Celyn will have to say no,” she warned.
He crossed to sit beside her. “How do you know that?”
“Celyn keeps the books. We haven’t any money. She imagines no one else understands figures, but I do. I used to play whist with Caradoc for money. He taught me how to count my winnings, since I nearly always beat him. I was very good, and if you’d like to play sometime—”
He looked at her in surprise. “Do you cheat? Do things to distract the other players by twirling your hair, or fluttering your lashes?”
She shrugged. “Doesn’t everyone? Phoebe uses those tactics. I switch the cards when no one’s looking.”
“How sophisticated,” he murmured. 
She looked at him along the length of her nose. “You mustn’t think that because we are here in the middle of nowhere that we are uneducated, or unmannered. Caradoc insisted on a very complete education for all of us. Gran taught us to dance, embroider, paint and every other kind of feminine accomplishment, but Caradoc insisted we learn history and French and even a little fencing. Does that surprise you?”
Edward imagined Celyn with a foil in her hand, facing down an opponent, her hazel gaze fierce. He felt desire curl through him. The more he knew of Celyn Beauchamp, the more intriguing she was. He’d never met a woman like her. “Yes, it surprises me indeed. Even my sisters don’t fence, though I daresay they can do plenty of harm with their sharp tongues,” he quipped. He looked at the book in her hand. “What are you reading? Aristotle, Greek history?”
Waverley, Sir Walter Scott’s newest book. Thank you for bringing so many wonderful books with you. I’ve read most of the books here, you see. This one is marvelous.”
He read the intelligence in her eyes. “I shall send you more.”
She regarded him soberly. “Then you won’t stay at Collingwood after Christmastide ends?”
He studied his hands. “I have duties in England, Louisa. I shall return when I can, of course, but—”
Her face fell. “Then it’s true. The spell didn’t work. You aren’t Celyn’s true love,” she said, her tone heavy with disappointment.
Normally, if anyone had suggested he was someone’s true love, he would have bolted for the door in horror. Instead, Edward felt a moment’s regret, and wished he could linger here. Not that anything could come of his infatuation with Collingwood’s chatelaine. Celyn was simply not suitable for marriage to an earl, the heir to a dukedom. He pictured himself visiting Collingwood in the future, just to see her, or perhaps she could be enticed to come to him.
“How would you like to come to Kingscott with Lady Phoebe? You aren’t old enough to make your debut, but my father keeps a wonderful library, and my youngest sister will be remaining in the country for another year or two. Perhaps Celyn could bring you.”
She studied his face, and he felt as if she were reading his thoughts, had guessed his motives toward Celyn. She raised her chin with a sniff. “I think I shall stay here, my lord. There is no point in raising false hopes, wishing for what cannot be. Gran needs me. Celyn, too. She would never leave Gran.”
He looked out the window, feeling slightly ashamed of himself. The children were playing in the snow, throwing snowballs, and sliding down the hill on their bellies.
“Why aren’t you outside playing with the other children?” he asked Louisa. “It looks like fun.”
She glanced at them, the turned back to the book in her hands. “I don’t play with them. They think books are silly. Besides, they haven’t asked me.” She said it wistfully, and he recognized that look well enough. He’d spent many Christmases wishing his half brother and sisters would invite him too, but they hadn’t. Perhaps, he thought, if he’d asked, or simply went outside and joined in, it might have been fun.
He took the book from Louisa’s hands. “Come on. We’ll go out together and challenge them to a snowball fight, you and I and anyone willing to join our side, and I haven’t been sliding—” well, ever. “In quite some time,” he finished.
Her eyes shone, and once again he had the strangest, most uplifting feeling in his breast. He felt like a hero as they hurried out of the library to find their coats and some mittens, Walter Scott forgotten for the moment.
Celyn sighed, and flicked the end of the quill pen over her lips. She was stuck upstairs, sitting by the window, going over accounts since Mrs. Jones refused to allow her to move a muscle to assist with the Christmas preparations. She was supposed to rest her ankle, keep it propped on a pillow, but there were things to do. Not that she could concentrate on the accounts. All she could think of was kissing Edward, of his careful hands on her ankle, of the strong flex of his muscles under her body as he carried her effortlessly across the park. She hadn’t wanted to let him go at all, even when they arrived back at the castle. No one seemed to find it odd that the earl was hauling her about like a sack of meal. Everyone seemed to like Edward very much, herself included, despite his attitude toward children and servants. 
She sighed again, and stared out the window. The children were playing on the lawn. She wished could join them. The snow on the hill was perfect for sliding. She watched as Colin headed down the slope on his belly, then Bran followed. Then Louisa.
Celyn looked again. Her youngest cousin was laughing, her cheeks pink as Colin hauled her to her feet and pulled her up the hill to slide down again.
Then, to her utter surprise, Edward Kingsley, the esteemed and dignified Earl of Wintercross and Collingwood, the man who hated children, slid down the icy slope on his bottom, with little Corrie in his lap, his coat tails flying, his hair covered in snow, his face bright and boyish. He landed in a snowdrift, and the children pelted him with snow, decimating his pompous consequence. But he laughed. He simply laughed.
And that’s when Celyn Beauchamp fell utterly, irrevocably, in love with him


            Celyn heard laughter coming down the hall as Davy Price helped her hobble to the dining room that evening. She was insistent that she could do it herself, but Mrs. Jones had summoned Davy to assist. He offered an arm to lean on, helped her down the stairs.
“I’ll be fine tomorrow,” he assured him. “With so much to do, I must be.”
            Davy smiled fondly. “Mrs. Jones and Catrin have taken charge. Mrs. Evans is helping out too, and between them, they have all the women organized. Everyone has a job to do, and they’re doing it gladly. You just relax, Celyn.” They didn’t need her? She felt her heart sink a little.
            And now, even outside the dining room, and down the hall, she could hear Louisa and Phoebe and even Arabella laughing. What on earth was so funny? She heard Edward’s deep voice, telling a story.
“My sister Margaret dropped the whole cake on my father’s feet, and his dogs—”
The story—and the laughter—stopped as she entered the room. Everyone turned to stare at her. Edward rose to his feet crossed to take her arm from Davy. She felt her knees weaken at his touch. “Good evening,” she tried, but her voice cracked.
“You should have called me to carry you downstairs,” he scolded her mildly. “We thought you might take a tray in your room.”
“And put someone to a lot of trouble when I’m perfectly capable of coming downstairs?” He put his arm around her waist, his hand warm through her gown, and helped her to her chair. She felt disappointment—and relief—when he let her go and stepped back once she was seated. She unfolded her napkin and wondered whether anyone could read her feelings in her eyes.
“What should I pack to take to London? I’ll need to visit a modiste once I get there, of course, but I want to look as stylish as possible, and—” 
“London?” Celyn looked at Phoebe’s flushed face.
“Yes!” Phoebe gushed. “Edward has invited me to visit his sisters, and to go to London with them for the Season. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“But we can’t—” Celyn began, and bit her lip. There was no money to send her cousin to London, especially if a new wardrobe was required.
“Edward invited me to visit his youngest sister at Kingscott. She’s just my age, and loves to read. The Duke, Edward’s father, is very proud of library and Edward says he’d be delighted to show it to me,” Louisa said happily. “New books, Celyn! Won’t that be wonderful?”
“Yes,” she said softly, her heart sinking. He’d given both girls their heart’s desire, exactly what she hoped he’d do. So why did she feel left out?
“You can come too,” Louisa added.
Celyn felt Edward’s eyes on her, felt her skin heat. She dared not look up at him now, let him see the desire to do just that in her eyes. “I’m needed here.” It sounded stiff, and matronly and dull, exactly how she felt.
Arabella sipped her wine. “We should talk about the ball tomorrow night—it is tomorrow night, isn’t it? I must remember to ask my maid to get my jewels out of the safe, and press my red silk gown. I do hope she won’t scorch the lace this time. Now who is on the guest list? Is that dreadful Lady Eversley coming?”
Phoebe giggled. “It will be such fun, Gran. We’ll dance the night away! Edward, you will dance with me, won’t you?”
Edward? Her cousins called him by his Christian name?
He smiled charmingly. “Of course, if I can remember how. It’s been months since I attended a ball, years since I actually agreed to dance at one.”
“How sad Celyn will be unable to dance. She does love it so,” Louisa said.
“Do you?” Edward asked, his eyes on her.
“Just country dances,” Celyn replied, feeling her cheeks heating.
“I will teach you to waltz,” he said, sipping his wine, regarding her over the rim of the glass.
“Teach me!” Phoebe said. “Since Celyn is injured and I will need to learn for my Season in London.”  
“I’m afraid that would be quite out of the question,” Edward told Phoebe. “At least in London. You’ll require permission from the patronesses of Almack’s before you will be allowed to waltz there. They are the grandest ladies of the ton, the matrons who ensure the rules of correct social behavior are observed to exacting standards.” He laughed at her pout. “We can practice here perhaps, since there’s no patronesses, to see us. Just don’t tell.”
Phoebe clasped her hand to her heart, and beamed at Edward. “Of course not! I will take the secret to my grave!” She sighed, and Celyn realized that Phoebe was every bit as infatuated with Edward as she was. She wondered if she should scold her, remind her that it was quite impossible, but was it? Edward was smiling back at her cousin, charming her. Her heart sank even further. Phoebe was far more suitable for him than she was, despite her youth. Celyn let the happy conversation flow around her, participating little, eating less.
“We’ll go out and gather greens tomorrow. Will you come with us Edward? We’ll need someone strong, and since you carried Celyn all the way home today—” Louisa began.
“You can cut the Yule log,” Phoebe interrupted. “It takes a very strong man for that.”
“Don’t forget the mistletoe,” Arabella said. “We’ll make a kissing ball. In my day, each lady plucked one berry from the ball for each kiss she received. At the end of the night, we counted to see who had the most berries. That lady was the queen of the evening to her face, and—well, you can imagine what we said behind her back.”
“I’m sure it will be me this year,” Phoebe said.
“Or Celyn,” Arabella mused. “A good many men would like to kiss her, I’m sure. We shall have to hang the ball in a very well-lighted place.”
Celyn cast a quick glance at Edward. He was looking at her, his expression unreadable, his eyes in shadow. Was he recalling the kiss they’d shared in the woods? She should not have allowed it. She met his eyes, intent on letting him know with a sharp glance that she did not make a habit of allowing men to kiss her, and it would not happen again, but there was yearning in his gaze, a soft light that made her mouth water for exactly that, another kiss. He smiled at her as if he knew and she shot to her feet with a gasp, forgetting her ankle. She gritted her teeth and clutched the edge of the table. “I think I shall retire. There’s such a lot to do tomorrow.”
Edward rose and came to her side. “I’ll see you upstairs,” he said.
Celyn looked around in a panic. Davy was gone, and Aled was nowhere to be seen. “The girls can help me.”
Louisa looked wistful. “I’m going to practice carol singing with the other children,” she said. “They asked me specially to come.”
“I have to work on my gown,” Phoebe said. “I’ll need to pick off the pink ribbon and add white lace, since that’s what’s fashionable in London. It could take hours.”
“I’ll help you, dear,” Arabella said. “It mustn’t be too low cut, Phoebe my dear, especially before your come out.”
That left only Edward. Celyn felt her face heat.
“Shall we?” he asked, holding out his hand. Celyn had no choice. Touching him was like putting her hand into a fire. It warmed her all over, scorched her. His hand on her waist made her dizzy, and she tried not to lean into him as he helped her limp to the bottom of the stairs. She stood gazing up at the long rise of the steps in dismay.
“This could take all night,” he murmured, and she whooped when he scooped her into his arms and began to climb.
“Put me down. I’m quite fine from here.” 
“No, you’re not. I am at your service. Just tell me where to go,” he said, his lips near to her ear, his chest next to her own.
“I am perfectly able to —” she began, but he silenced her with a look.
“It is my pleasure,” he said, and she felt the word ‘pleasure’ pluck at her strained nerves, vibrate through every inch of her body. She swallowed.
“The tower. My room is there,” she said, and he went along the hall and up the circular flight of stone steps.
“A bower fit for a princess,” he murmured as they entered her bedroom and he set her carefully on the edge of the bed.
He looked around at the books, the clothing on the hooks, the account ledger on the table.
“Thank you for your kindness to Phoebe and Louisa,” she said. “I’m afraid Phoebe will have to wait for at least another year before she can go to London.”
“Why?” he asked, turning to look at her. “She is of age to make her debut. I assume that if she was Caradoc’s ward, she is now my responsibility, and it is my duty to see she has a proper debut. My stepmother will ensure everything is done properly, and my sisters will be excellent company for her. If you would prefer she does not marry right away, then I will make any suitors who apply to me aware of that.”
She stared at him. Of course he would be the one to decide those things. She hadn’t thought. Phoebe had been her responsibility until now, but now the matter of her cousins’ future lay in Edward’s capable hands, and the hands of a stranger, his stepmother, the Duchess of Kingscott. She wasn’t needed for anything.
“And Louisa will be company for my youngest sister, Frances. She misses her sisters when they go to London without her, but my father insists she remain at home. She could certainly benefit from Louisa’s influence, or she’ll turn out as silly as my other sisters.”
“I see,” Celyn said, studying her hands. “You’ve given everyone the very best Christmas presents they could wish for, their precise heart’s desire.”
“What’s your heart’s desire, Celyn?” he asked.
“Me?” She felt herself blushing. “I am simply happy to be of use, to remain as steward and housekeeper and to oversee the rebuilding of the village. Thank you for agreeing to—”
He made a sound in his throat. “Not something for Collingwood. Those are my responsibilities, my duties. They are not gifts, Celyn. Besides, I have already asked Davy Price to be the new steward. He was delighted.”
Celyn stared at him. “But I—” she began.
“And I’ve appointed Mrs. Jones as housekeeper.”
She felt tears sting her eyes. “Then I shall care for Arabella,” she said.
He shook his head. “She has agreed to come to Kingscott with Louisa. I have an elderly aunt who would welcome the company. They may even know each other, having traveled in the same social circles at the same time. I think they’ll get along famously. They can gossip about things that took place thirty years ago, and know exactly what and who they are talking about, even if no one else does.”
She swallowed, feeling lost. “Arabella will enjoy that.”
“And so that leaves you. What is your heart’s desire?” he asked.
She shut her eyes.
“Nothing,” she murmured.
He cupped his hand under her chin. His fingers were warm, gentle, and she looked up to meet his eyes, felt her heartbeat increase. “Surely there’s something,” he coaxed.
She swallowed. What was it about his man that made her bold, restless? She knew exactly what she wanted, but did she dare ask for it?
“There’s no mistletoe, but would you—” she paused. “Would you kiss me again?”
He scanned her face, his eyes coming to rest on her mouth. He bent and put his lips to hers, gently. She clung to his mouth with hers, licked the seam of his lips, demanding more. After a moment, he pulled her to her feet, tilted her head back and deepened the kiss, and she breathed him in, wrapped her arms around his neck, tangled her fingers in his hair. He smelled of winter wind, and tasted of the whisky he’d had after dinner, and she opened to his tongue this time, pressed as close to him as she could get, feeling a deeper desire rising. She wanted to remember every detail of this moment, the way he felt, the way he smelled, the way he tasted.
She ran her fingertips over the sharp stubble on his cheek and jaw, and he buried his fingers in her hair, loosened the pins, and she felt it cascade over both of them. He buried his face in her long dark locks, gathering them in his hands, kissing them. She tipped her head back so he could kiss her throat, nibble on her ear. It was a delicious sensation. She arched against him, giving him permission for more.
He caught her face in his hands, met her eyes, his expression tormented.
“Celyn,” he groaned. “Send me away now, and I’ll go, but if I stay—” she watched his throat bob.
She understood. Her heart flipped in her breast. She wanted this, and the consequences could wait until morning. “Stay,” she murmured.
His lips met hers again, more abandoned, more desperate, more possessive. Yes, she wanted this, even if only for this one night. His tongue swept into her mouth, and she reveled in the intimacy, she sparred with it, kissed him back. She pressed her body against his, felt the hardness of his erection against her hip, something new to her, though she knew exactly what it meant. 
She gasped as he cupped her breasts, rolled his fingers over her nipples. She tangled her fingers in his cravat, fumbled with the knot, trying to expose new skin to kiss. The pulse at his throat throbbed under her mouth, and she licked it, making him groan, which drove her own desire even higher. She was just making the knot in cravat tighter, had no idea how to undress him. His hands found the buttons of her gown, expertly undoing them, exposing her flesh. She tried tugging at his coat, settled for sliding her hands underneath, exploring his chest and shoulders through the fine linen of his shirt. He shrugged out of his coat, and let it drop, seemingly at the same moment he peeled her gown off her shoulders, letting it fall at her feet. He stood looking at her. She wore only her thin linen shift, and she resisted the urge to cover her breasts with her hands. She didn’t understand the look on his face as his eyes roamed over her.
“Is there anything wrong?” she managed, her voice a husky croak.
“Nothing at all. You’re beautiful, Celyn,” he murmured. He drew a finger over her cheek, down her arms, pulling her back into his embrace. She molded her body against his, feeling every inch of him from chest to knee. She arched against the hardness that jutted against her hip, felt him undoing the ties on her shift, She wanted him naked, too. She unbuttoned his shirt with shaking fingers. His body was hard under her fingertips, and soft as well. She swept her palm over his warm skin of his chest, paused at the hard little pebbles of his nipples when he gasped at her touch, learning what he liked. 
He let her shift fall away from her breasts, touched her. Her nipples hardened under his hand, became points of intense pleasure that spread desire through every inch of her body. She barely felt him lift her, his chest against hers, naked flesh to naked flesh, and move to the bed and lay her down. It was just one more dazzling sensation. He stood beside the bed and took off his breeches, opening the flies, releasing his erection. He looked like a Greek statue come to life, hard, sculpted and perfect, male in every detail. She felt a new heat fill her as she stared his erection. No fig leaves, or artful drapery, just him. 
“Oh,” she breathed, and reached out to touch him. He gritted his teeth as her hand closed on him, his erection leaping in her grip. He caught her hand, held it still.
“Slowly, love,” he said, and lay down beside her. He took her in his arms, his mouth finding hers as their bodies met, entirely naked, her skin against his, her feminine curves fitted to his male angles. His hands explored her body, stroking her back, her waist, her hips, until she thought she would die of the pleasure. She touched him the way he touched her, marveled at the breadth of his shoulders, the muscular hardness his chest, the jut of his hips, the round smooth muscle of his buttocks. And all the while she kissed him. She couldn’t get enough of kissing him. It was the ultimate pleasure, the most delicious—
His fingers found the nest of curls at her thighs, and slipped inside. She cried out in surprise. She’d been wrong—this was the best thing of all. Her hands fluttered on his shoulders, useless, unsure what to do next, lost in what he was doing to her. He stroked her intimate flesh, knew exactly where she needed his touch, and she felt the world begin to dissolve in a white-hot mist. She dug her nails into his shoulders, wordlessly begging him for more. Surely this was the culmination of the magic he’d set in motion the night he’d arrived at Collingwood, something marvelous and mysterious. She gasped as the pressure and tension increased, almost unbearable. It was like climbing to the top of a mountain, and anticipating the drop over the edge, fearing it, wishing she could fly like an eagle, knowing that was impossible. She felt the ground sliding away, the room, the whole world, everything except for his hand on her body, his mouth, the need. 
He caught her cries in his mouth as the sensation peaked, dropped her over the edge. She didn’t fall after all. She flew, and he was there to hold her up.
“More,” she pleaded, and he gave her a lopsided smile as he nudged her thighs apart, knelt between them. She felt the blunt tip of his erection against her sensitive flesh. The sharp pain caught her by surprise for a moment, brought her back to earth, to the man upon her, inside her. He paused, stared down at her.
“Celyn—” he managed, but she didn’t want to talk. Not now. She clasped her legs around his hips and arched against him.
He muttered an oath and began to move, driving into her in deep, powerful strokes. Oh no, this was the best of all, she decided, clinging to him. She felt the pleasure rise again, ebbing each time he withdrew, only to flare again, hotter and higher as he moved within her. She clasped her hands on his buttocks, felt the powerful flex of his body, let the sensation carry her over the edge once again. He increased his pace, muttering her name. He poured himself into her in one last deep thrust, and lay still.
She could feel his heart pounding against hers, their bodies still joined. She shut her eyes, breathed in the scent of him, held him close, imprinting the memory of his body on hers in her mind, the way it felt to be held, and loved. If it never happened again, she would have this moment, this incredible feeling to keep.
He gently rolled off and lay beside her, leaning on one elbow to look at her. He brushed her hair off her brow. “You weren’t Caradoc’s mistress.”
“No,” she said, unsure what else to say. Could he tell she had never—?
“You were a virgin, Celyn. Why didn’t you tell me?” 
“Would it have made a difference?”
He got up, sat on the edge of the bed.  “Of course! I would have gone slower, been more careful. In fact, I would never have done this at all.”
She raised her chin. “Then I am glad I did not.”
He got to his feet and stared at her. “Why? You must know I cannot—”
He stopped and she felt a frisson of anger pass through her. “Marry me? Yes, I know.” She rose too, and pulled the sheet off the bed and wrapped it around herself. They regarded each other across the width of the mattress. She wished he would come and take her in his arms, hold her, and—then what? There was no future beyond this moment.
“You should go,” she said, turning away, limping to the window to look out over the snowy fields, glittering in the moonlight.
“Celyn, perhaps you could come to Kingscott with the girls, and we might—”
She spun to look at him, holding the sheet as if it was a court gown. “Might what? Would I become your mistress, perhaps? Or would you offer me a job in your household? No, thank you.”
She saw the conflict in his eyes, the guilt before he looked away.
“I am capable of making my own way in the world, Lord Wintercross.” Her tone was icy. She reached for his coat, lying on the floor beside her and held it out to him. “Please go.” 
He took it from her, and gathered the rest of his garments, got dressed. “Celyn, who are you? Old Caradoc’s child, born out of wedlock?”
The bald truth was ugly, even here in the sanctuary of her tower. She didn’t reply, only turned away so he wouldn’t see her tears. “You needn’t worry. I expect nothing at all from you. I only wrote because I wanted to see that the people, this place—are taken care of. It’s their home, you see, their entire world. They have nothing else.” The tears were streaming down her cheeks now.
She flinched away from his touch on her shoulder. She didn’t want pity or sympathy from him. Not now. It would be worse than his scorn at her low birth—an earl’s daughter, but not quite. Good enough for a moment’s pleasure, or to live in the shadows of his life with the crumbs of his affection, but nothing more. 
“Perhaps we should talk in the morning,” he said.
“It will be a very busy day,” she said coolly. “There’s a lot to do. Please go!”
She would start to sob in a moment, and she didn’t want him to see that. No one saw her cry—not at Caradoc’s death, not when he’d told her about her birth, the fact that her mother hadn’t wanted her, and he’d made her promise to keep the secret forever. It hurt, thinking that the woman he’d once known, who’d betrayed their love and married another, who’d abandoned her child, meant more to Caradoc Colley than that child. She hadn’t cried—she’d tried to prove her worth by being useful, brave, indispensable—and she would not cry in front of this man, either.
She heard the door close behind him, Only then did she fell on the bed and sob. The sheets still smelled of him, of them, and that made it worse. She’d wanted only to have a moment of love she could remember, a time when someone belonged to her, and she to him.
And now, she only wanted to forget it had ever happened.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

THE CHRISTMAS KING by Lecia Cornwall, Part 5

Here’s the next section of my Christmas romance, THE CHRISTMAS KING I hope that once the holiday baking is done, and the kids are in bed, and the wrapping is more or less under control, you have a few minutes to spend with me here, falling in love at Christmas time in Regency Wales. The second through fourth parts of the story are available here on my blog—just scroll down. The first part appeared on
December 12, 2012 at Ramblings From This Chick’s Historical Christmas Eve (visit the site if you'd like to start reading the story now), and will be posted here on New Year’s Day.


Four Family Members

I’m feeling very fortunate this Christmas. Once again my children are home for the holidays. My son is 21 now, and my daughter just turned 18, and they both plan to eventually make their careers in other countries, my son in Russia and my daughter in England. Who knows how many more Christmases we’ll all be able to be together? So, I’m enjoying every moment. We cook together, have long talks while we wrap, shop, cook, clean, and play together. Bliss! For me, that’s the best part of Christmas. Hoping your loved ones are all gathered close to you, too, this Christmas!


By Lecia Cornwall


The day before Christmas Eve

Edward waited half an hour for Celyn to answer his summons, pacing the library, fuming. He had a cut on his chin from his first attempt to shave without the assistance of his valet, and Mrs. Jones had yet to answer his summons to bring him something to eat here in the privacy of the library, where he wouldn’t have to share it. He paced the floor, counting the minutes.
This was not the Christmas he had in mind. It was nothing like the tranquil holiday in the country he’d pictured, and it was not the calm, ordered Christmas he was used to at Kingscott, either. It was bedlam, and it had to stop. He was in charge, the lord and master of Collingwood.
He glanced up at Caradoc’s portrait, and the old earl smiled back with an enigmatic smile, as if he were laughing at Edward, and knew exactly what he was going through. Well, old Caradoc might have been lenient with his staff, but Edward preferred things to run according to his exact wishes, as was proper. He strode to the door. This chaos was going to end now, even if he had to take Celyn Beauchamp by the hair and insist she listen to him while he set some rules.
“You—” he stopped the maidservant in the hall. “Take me to Miss Beauchamp at once.”
The girl flushed. “But she’s—”
“I don’t care. At once!”
She bobbed a curtsy, and led him along the hall and up the stairs, and paused before a closed door. “She’s in there,” she whispered, and Edward opened the door himself, and stopped.
Celyn was seated on the side of a wide bed, her head resting on the naked chest of a man.
Not just any man. It was Carruthers, his valet.
Carruthers’s nose was as red as a holly berry, but he was grinning from ear to ear, and looked quite content.
“What the devil is going on here?’ Edward demanded.
The valet’s smile fled, and he stared at Edward in horror. “My lord! I was just—that is, I am—I mean, Celyn—”
“Miss Beauchamp!” Edward snapped.
“Yes, of course, Miss Beauchamp. She was just—”
“Good morning, my lord. I was listening to his chest,” Celyn said, regarding Edward calmly. She looked beautiful this morning, even draped over his valet. She was wearing a simple blue woolen gown that clung to her slim curves, and she wore her hair in a simple braid that emphasized the softness of her dark locks.
Carruthers pulled the sheet up to his chin and stared at Edward. “Perhaps I should get up,” he murmured.
“Yes indeed,” Edward said coldly.
“No you will not,” Celyn said, and leveled a glare at Edward. “He has a cold in his head, but thankfully not in his chest, though he most certainly will if he gets up now. He needs rest.”
The valet looked torn, but Celyn’s hand on his shoulder apparently convinced him to see things her way. He smiled at her, and settled back against the pillow. That’s when Edward saw his monogram on the pillowcase. “Is that my —” 
Celyn rose. “Perhaps we could discuss this outside, so John can get some rest?”
“Who’s John?’ Edward asked.
“Me,” Carruthers replied sheepishly. “It’s my Christian name, my lord. John Carruthers—John Daniel James Carruthers, actually.”
            Edward hadn’t known that. The man who shaved him, assisted him with dressing and bathing when necessary had a first name, and he’d never bothered to find out what it was. Celyn was frowning at him in disbelief. Carruthers was clutching Edward’s fine linen sheets to his chin in grim mortification. For some reason, Edward felt as if he just might be the one in the wrong. “Yes, well, perhaps it is better if you rest, make a start on things tomorrow, eh, John?” The valet’s first name sounded wrong on his tongue. He could see the horror in Caruthers’s eyes at the intimacy. Only Celyn looked mollified.
            “Will you sit with John until he falls asleep, Catrin?” she asked the maid, who still hovered in the doorway, watching the whole scene with interest. Edward wondered if Celyn would tuck the covers around the valet—his blanket, too, by the looks of it—and kiss him on the head before she departed, but she merely smiled at him. It was a dazzling, genuine smile, soft, sweet, and full of kindness. it was enough to make a sick man well at once, and a healthy man…Edward felt the breath leave his body.
Celyn came toward him, and he almost opened his arms to catch her, but she passed him, led the way out.
            “Did you need something my lord?’ she asked in the hallway.
            “Yes,” he began. He needed to sweep her into his arms, to make her look at him the way she looked at his valet. “No,” he said, as a man passed them in the hall. Celyn greeted him by name, exchanged a word or two, and introduced Edward. He hardly noticed. The fellow was wearing a pair of fine red calf leather slippers with the Wintercross crest embroidered on the toes. His slippers. “This is exactly why I wished to speak with you, Miss Beauchamp—” he began, pointing at the footwear, but the man grinned at him, grasped his extended hand and shook it.
“Thank you most kindly for the slippers, m’lord. I lost my boots in the fire, had nothing at all to cover my feet. These are doing the job nicely.”
Edward shut his mouth with a snap. feeling like a heel yet again. He followed Celyn down the hall.
“I hope you don’t mind, my lord,” Celyn said. “We are short of blankets and linens and warm clothing for the children—and even shoes, in Owen’s case—and there were so many things on the baggage cart that arrived with John, that I thought, that is I hoped—”
She turned to him, and bit her lip, her eyes wide and beautiful. Edward was lost. He knew this was the precise moment to assert his authority, refuse to allow her to take such a high hand with his belongings, but how could he? He’d look like an ogre, stealing warm clothes from children, snatching slippers from men without boots, tearing the blankets off the sick. He imagined the expense of replacing everything when he returned to London. Carruthers, when he recovered, could start by making a detailed list.
“I trust you at least left me a change of clothing,” he muttered. 
She smiled again. It was sunshine on a cold day, light on snow, pleasure itself. He felt as if he’d made the wittiest, most marvelous pronouncement on earth. Suddenly all the pleasures of Christmas hit him. He could smell gingerbread and cloves and honey, saw stars, felt the breath leave his body yet again. His mouth watered as he stared at her. 
“There you are, my lord,” Mrs. Jones said, bearing a tray filled with gingerbread and hot tea. “I have the tea you ordered, but I thought you’d be in the library. I’ve been looking for you.”
Celyn took the tray. “I’ll take it, Mrs. Jones. We’ll go into Caradoc’s sitting room.”
She led him back to his own apartments, into a pleasant sitting room adjoining his bedroom, with wide leaded windows that overlooked the snow covered garden, and set the tray down.
“I didn’t have any breakfast,” he said, as she cast her eyes over the amount of food on the tray.
Her brows rose. “I left specific orders—” 
“Yes, well, orders seem to have a way of going awry here,” he said, and sat down beside the tray.
“Allow me,” Celyn said, and poured his tea. She put a generous slice of warm gingerbread on a plate and dripped golden honey on it. He watched it melt over the dark surface, felt himself melting. She was standing next to him, close enough to touch. He could smell the faint scent of her soap, something floral.
He caught her wrist when she would have stepped away, held her still. She looked down at him, surprise in the hazel depths of her eyes. He swallowed. There was a soft tendril of hair over her cheek, and he reached up a hand to smooth it back, his fingers brushing her cheek. Her skin was warm and soft, her lips softly pink, slightly parted.
“Would you allow me to—” he began, and stopped. Hell. What if she said no? He wanted to kiss her. Perhaps it was better to ask forgiveness than permission, especially if there was a chance that permission would not be granted. He moved in to kiss her, and felt the soft exhalation of her breath on his mouth, and her eyes closed as she leaned in too. He cupped her face in his hands, took a deep breath, and—
There was a knock on the door. She gasped and pulled away.
“What now?” he muttered.
“Come in,” she said, in a voice that quivered just a little. That at least was gratifying.
“There you are, Celyn,” Aled said, entering. “Louisa and Lady Arabella are looking for you, and Phoebe is in a flap over a gown, and wants your help with that, too.”
Edward noted the old steward was dressed to go out—wearing one of Edward’s own greatcoats, in fact. “Will you be coming out to hunt today after all, my lord? With tomorrow being Christmas Eve, we’ll need a feast. Mrs. Jones says now she has the spices and trappings, she wants a brace of pheasants to use them.”
“We’ll be right there,” Celyn said, smoothing back the wayward lock of hair herself. He felt a twinge of angry regret that the simple task had been accomplished without him. She looked him straight in the cravat, her cheeks flushed with color. “I’d best go and see Phoebe, and get my coat,” she said.
But Louisa burst through the half open door, not bothering to knock. She fell into Celyn’s arms and burst into tears. “It’s Matilda! She’s gone missing.” she sobbed. “She’s out in the snow and the cold, I just know it and she’s just a bit of a thing.”
Edward rose. “One of the children?” he asked.
“Cat,” Aled said dryly.
Louisa turned on him. “She’s a royal cat, descended from a long line of Queen Charlotte’s own. Matilda’s ancestor was given to Gran as a gift, and she’s most attached to her!”
Aled rolled his eyes. “Her ladyship thinks it’s the same one, the exact cat.”
“This is Matilda the sixth, I believe,” Celyn murmured, “But she’s no less beloved.”
“We have to find her!” Louisa wailed.
Aled squared his shoulders. “If she’s out there, I’ll use my hunting skills to track her, and I’ll bring her back safe and sound, lass. Don’t fret. She’s as good as found.”
But Louisa turned to Celyn in horror, and Edward read the fear in their eyes. To Aled, with his faulty vision, a pheasant may look very much like a cat, or vice versa.
“I’d best come at once,” Edward said, taking a sip of tea and giving the gingerbread a regretful look.
Louisa looked at him with stars in her eyes, and threw her arms around his waist. “Oh, thank you! I just knew you were Celyn’s true love, I knew it all along. I started the think this morning that perhaps it was Mr. Carruthers, but now I can see—”
“You’d best go and distract Arabella for a few hours until Matilda is found,” Celyn interrupted.
Louisa nodded. “Please hurry.”



The air was crisp and cold, and the sun was shining on the fresh snow, making the world sparkle like diamonds. Celyn looked round her, trying to see the land as Edward might, experiencing at the beauty of the Welsh countryside for the first time. Collingwood Castle sat on the crest of a hill, overlooking a valley below where a river ran, the ribbon of black water twining in and out of clear blue ice. Beyond the ridge, there was a waterfall, and around the side of the hill, out of sight from here, lay the village—which was in ruins now, of course. The slopes of the hills were thickly forested, and above the trees, the mountains reached heavenward.
Edward took a deep breath of the clean air, and Celyn did the same, catching the scent of pine and winter wind, as he must. He looked content, she thought, as if Collingwood’s beauty appealed to him after all, despite, well, despite everything. His hair was golden in the sun, his gaze keen as he surveyed his surroundings. She liked the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he squinted at the glare of the sun. He looked like the master of this place, as if he belonged here, even if he was seeing it for the fist time. Only his clothes—a caped greatcoat cut of the finest wool, his top hat, and his elegant boots marked him as a visitor who did not, perhaps, belong after all.
“Which way?” he asked Aled, shouldering his gun.
“We’ll go that way,” Aled said, pointing toward the woods. “Bound to be a pheasant—or a cat—in there. Careful of the wolves, though. Best stay behind me, let me do my job.”
Edward cast a quick glance at her, and she studied her gloves. Aled was a proud man, and she hoped Edward would not take that away from him. She felt his eyes like a touch on her skin, felt his gaze roaming over her green coat, trimmed with soft rabbit fur. What was he thinking when he looked at her? Probably that her garments were far from fashionable, that she was a country bumpkin, unlike the fashionable London beauties he was used to.
She longed to ask him about London fashions. She was no less a woman than Phoebe, and probably might be considered even more vain than her young cousin, since she had far less need than Phoebe to wear pretty clothes. it would probably be better to have a conversation with Edward about taking Phoebe and Louisa to London, giving them a Season and some Town polish so they could marry well, be the wives of gentlemen.
Then she wondered if he was staring at her because he wished to know about the estate, expected her to tell him about Collingwood. She wondered what a good steward or a proper estate manager might say. Would they speak of crop yields and bushels per acre, and the annual income the livestock produced? She swallowed and began to talk. “We raise sheep here, mainly for wool, some for meat. There are cattle, too, and oats, and—” he was looking at her as if she were daft, his gray eyes fixed on her lips, his gloved hands resting on the stock of his gun. Had she said something wrong? “We’ll come out tomorrow and collect greens to decorate the hall. Do they do that in England? I suppose they do. Caradoc and Arabella did so in their youth. They used to tell us tales of roast goose and mistletoe—” she realized she was babbling and stopped.
“My sisters gather greens decorate Kingscott. My stepmother hosts a ball, mostly to find spouses for all of us that remain unmarried, I think. Yes, there’s goose, and ivy and mistletoe in England too,” he said.
She read a wistful look in his eyes. Was there a lady he missed? Or was it just home in general? She bit her lip.
He gripped her arm suddenly, stopping her from taking another step, and she followed his point, and saw the stag, standing in a clearing, watching them.
She heard Aled cry out in surprise, saw him fumble with his gun as the stag began to run. Aled wasn’t ready, had no hope of bringing the beast down. Edward stepped in front of her and took aim, then waited. Celyn was afraid for the magnificent beast, hating to kill it even for food, and yet half afraid Aled wouldn’t bring it down, and the people at Collingwood would go hungry.
She watched Edward hesitate, following the creature’s flight with the barrel of his gun, and braced herself for the shot. What was he waiting for?
Aled had his gun on his shoulder at last, was taking aim, and—she flinched as the guns fired almost simultaneously. Edward lowered his weapon.
The report echoed over the hills, and she heard Aled’s cry of surprise. “I got him! Did you see that? Mrs. Jones will just have to make do with venison for Christmas, won’t she?” he crowed proudly, doing a jig in the snow on his skinny bowlegs.
She watched as Edward set his gun down. “Congratulations. That was very fine shooting indeed.” he said, and she knew.
Edward had killed the deer, and he had done in such a way as to save Aled’s pride, to let him believe that he’d shot the creature, done his job. She put a hand to her brow and scanned the trees until she found it, the shot that had gone wide, gouged the bark of an ancient pine, knocking the snow from the branches. It was far from where the deer had fallen. She looked at Edward again, watched him shake Aled’s hand, listen to Aled’s proud re-telling of how he’d taken aim and fired. She held her breath, waiting for Edward to correct him, but he did nothing of the kind. He smiled, and slapped Aled on the shoulder.
Her lips parted and she stared at him. The sun came through the trees and touched Edward’s fair hair, played over his broad shoulders. Had she been afraid he wouldn’t understand Collingwood? He understood perfectly. She looked at the joy on Aled’s lined face, felt tears in her eyes. She wanted to run through the snow, throw her arms around Edward and give him the kiss they’d almost shared in the sitting room, but Aled was coming toward her.
“I’ll need a few others to help me bring the stag back to the castle,” Aled was saying. “Why don’t I go and get some of the lads, and you stay here, Celyn, see that the wolves don’t get it before I get back.”
Edward looked surprised, and glanced at Celyn. She smiled at Aled. “Go on then. Perhaps his lordship can go and look for a pheasant or two to go with the venison.”
She watched Aled go, skipping through the snow, laughing to himself and listing aloud all the many recipes that could be made from venison. “Venison stew with juniper berries, venison pies, roasted venison, venison soused in wine…”
“Thank you, my lord. That was kind,” she said when Aled was out of earshot.
He looked at her for a moment as if he didn’t know what she meant, and she crossed the clearing to touch the gouge in the tree where Aled’s ball had hit.
He grinned, the pride clear in his eyes now, and all for her. “I’ve always a been a good shot. I hunt deer on my own estates.”
“Aled will dine out—or in, in this case—for months on this tale.”
He said nothing more, and she knew the secret would remain between them.
“I believe you wished to speak to me about something this morning,” she said. “What was it?”
Hs smile faded. “Ah, yes. I wished to impose some rules on the household.”
She bristled, and took a seat on a fallen tree, folding her hands on her knee. “Oh?”
“I woke this morning to find children in my room, and in my bed. They ate my breakfast, and they were wearing my clothes.”
“I see.” She almost laughed, but he looked angry now.
“Do you, Miss Beauchamp? My servants are using my personal belongings!” he continued, his color rising. “Surely these people have their own belongings, their own rooms.”
“We’ve been hard pressed to find clothes and food and even bedding since the fire, my lord. Your arrival—with so many essential things—couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“My valet is sleeping on my sheets!” he grumbled, pacing before her. “He was probably every bit as horrified as I was!”
“Why? He needs sheets and blankets like everyone else. He was very ill. I doubt he even noticed the sheets were yours, if it’s any comfort,” she said.
“That’s not the point. He’s a servant!” Edward said peevishly.
“He’s a person, a sick young man far from home,” she said, rising to her feet. The sun wasn’t shining on him now. He stood under a branch laden with snow, and she was tempted to kick the tree so it fell on him.
“I don’t pay him to be sick!”
“Don’t you ever get sick?” she asked.
“I pay my servants to see that I do not.”
She couldn’t help it. She laughed. “How funny you are!”
He looked horrified. “Not at all. Why should it be seen as funny to enjoy the position in life one is born to, and expect others to do likewise?” he demanded. “There is no order if people do not remain in their places!”
She stared at him. “Or happiness, either. Birth has nothing to do with a person’s heart, or soul, or the kindness one shows to others.”
“I am a very charitable man!” he insisted, looking insufferably pompous. She kicked the tree after all, and watched the snow spill over him. Then she turned on her heel and began to walk away, down the hill.
“Where the devil are you going?” he said, catching up to her a few moments later, still brushing the snow away.
“For a walk,” she said simply. “I would prefer to go alone if you don’t mind. Or is that beyond the privilege of my birth?”
“Are there really wolves hereabouts?” he asked.
She considered telling him the truth, that there were not, and hadn’t been for many generations. “Yes,” she said instead. “Hundreds of them.”
“Then I cannot in all good conscience allow you to walk alone.”
She stopped and turned on him with an angry glare. He nearly ran into her. “I do not need your escort, my lord. I know this place like my own heart, every tree and rock and mountain. I am not a servant you can order to do your bidding. I could have left Collingwood the very day Caradoc died.” She poked his lapel with a sharp finger to make her point. “I have been managing this estate—your estate (poke)—on very little for many months, trying to keep people fed, housed, and happy, waiting for you to arrive.” She poked him again. “It hasn’t been easy, and I did not do it for privilege or my comfort.” Another poke.
He caught her hand in his. There was still snow on the brim of his hat, and as he tipped his head to look down at her, it slid off, and hit her square in the face. She sputtered and stepped back, and he laughed. She supposed she deserved it. He reached out to brush the snow off her hair and her nose. The touch was intimate, it tickled, vibrated over every nerve in her body, made her pause, look up at him. He stared back for a moment, his hand stilling.
“Mistletoe,” he murmured.
She glanced up, saw only sky. His arms came around her, pulled her close, and his lips came down on hers, melting the snow on her cheeks. His mouth fit to her perfectly, and she shut her eyes as he tilted his head, deepened the kiss, nibbled on her lips until she gasped in surprise, and opened her mouth. His tongue plunged in touch hers, the sensation bold, intimate, delicious, hot in the cold air. She slid her hands up around his neck, certain she’d fall if he let her go now. She stood on tiptoes and kissed him back. He pulled her nearer, the length of her body against his, and she could feel his desire right through the thickness of their winter garments. It was exhilarating, and dangerous, but she didn’t want to stop. 
The call of a bird startled them, and he looked up at the bright-eyed creatures cheering them on from the tree.
She slipped out of his arms and began to walk. What had she done? Why had she allowed him to kiss her? It had been the most magical, wonderful kiss imaginable, perfect and unforgettable, even without mistletoe, but it should not have happened at all.  
“I have to go an look for the cat,” she said, looking back over her shoulder, her mouth tingling. He wanted to kiss her again, wanted more than that. She could see it in his eyes, and she turned away, quickening her pace. 
She heard him following her, and she hurried even faster along the snow-covered track, confused tears blurring her vision. He thought her a servant, imagined she was Caradoc’s mistress, so far beneath him he could dally with her at will. What would happen once Christmas ended and duty and more pleasant company called him back to England again? She’d never see him again. He’d go back to pleasure and privilege, and she would become every single thing he thought she was.
She heard his expression of surprise as they rounded the hill and the village came into view. She hadn’t been here since the night of the fire. Burnt timbers clawed the sky, half buried in snow, ugly in the beautiful landscape. The devastation was like physical pain, and Celyn stopped, and pressed her fist to her stomach.

Edward stared at the damage. How many cottages had stood here? There was nothing left to salvage or save. Everything the people of Collingwood had owned had been taken from them in a moment. And Celyn—he looked at her, saw the pain in her eyes.
“Were you here the night it happened?”
She took off her glove, showed him the burn mark on the palm of her left hand. His stomach clenched at the sight. “Aled came to fetch me, but it was already too late. They wanted me to —fix it—but I couldn’t.” She looked at him pleadingly. “You can. You can rebuild the cottages in the spring, give them new homes. Otherwise, they’ll have to leave Collingwood.”
He saw how much it mattered to her. She had no care for herself. She hadn’t asked him for a single thing, except to take care of the people here. Tears filled her eyes, overflowed, and he used his thumb to wipe away a tear that spilled over her cheek. “And you, Celyn Beauchamp, what is it you want?”
She looked at him, wide eyed. “I?” she asked, as if she hadn’t thought of it. “Well, there’s Arabella, and Phoebe and Louisa who need—”
He frowned. “Come now. It’s Christmas, Celyn. Make a wish for yourself.”
He watched her blush, and her eyelashes swept down. “What if it doesn’t come true? Wouldn’t that be worse than never having wished at all, living with the foolish hope ever after that magic isn’t real?”
“I don’t know. But if you never make that wish, then there’s not hope at all of it coming true. What if it does—” A loud squall caught his attention. “What the devil is that?”
Celyn cried out and rushed toward the burnt out shell of one of the buildings, scrambling to loosen a burnt timber, tears still streaming down her cheeks.
“Let me do it,” he said, coming to her side, shifting the heavy beam. “You don’t have to do everything by yourself, Miss Beauchamp. You have a castle full of people who can assist you, share the burden.” The god-awful squall came again, and she caught his arm.
He moved another charred timber, and a pair of bright green eyes stared at him from a dry, snug little hole. “I trust you’re Matilda?” he asked, and the cat blinked at him. A squirming knot of kittens added their voices to their mother’s plea for help.
“Oh, Matilda!” Celyn cried. “How did you get here? Do you know the worry you’ve caused?” Before he could stop her, she tried to reach into the hole. Another beam shifted, and fell against her ankle. She cried out in pain, and he threw his body against the rest of the slithering pile of rubble, keeping it from crushing her.
 “Stay still,” he warned, as he shouldered the wood aside, and tugged her free.
He knelt by her side and checked her ankle. “It’s only sprained,” she pronounced, trying to move away from his touch. He sent her a sharp look of rebuke and began to untie her bootlaces. “We’ll need to remove your boot before it begins to swell, or it will be more painful to do it later.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“Of course you do, but let me deal with it, will you? I’ll carry you back.” he said. She shook her head.
“I can walk, she said stubbornly. “It’s much shorter if we go across the park to the castle, hardly any distance at all.” 
“Miss Beauchamp, you will allow me to be of assistance to you. Not because you are a servant or a lady, or the finest steward, housekeeper, and butler I have ever seen, but because you are a person in need of help. A person who means very much to those who love her.”
She looked surprised at that, but she nodded. “Can we take Matilda?” she asked.
He sighed, and crawled into the cat’s hiding place. “You really must stop considering everyone and everything before yourself,” He told Celyn as he grasped the first kitten, and drew it out gently. “It’s a boy,” he pronounced, and put it into his hat. “And a girl,” he dropped in the next, a black and white scrap of fur. “And another boy.” He looked at Matilda, who extricated herself from the nest, and was now fussing about his hat, regarding her kittens. “A fine family, Your Majesty,” he quipped, and Celyn smiled.
“A fine new start to the village, wouldn’t you say?” she asked, stroking Matilda’s brindled head.
Edward unwound his scarf and wrapped it around her ankle. Then he gently tucked the kittens into the deep pockets of his greatcoat.
Ready?” he asked Celyn, and she nodded. He scooped her into his arms. Her slight weight felt right, as if she belonged there with her head on his shoulder, cradled against his chest. She put her arm around his neck.
Matilda, not about to walk in the deep snow, leapt into Celyn’s lap, and glared at him balefully, playing the perfect chaperone.
“I promise I’ll rebuild the village, Celyn,” he said, and she smiled up at him, and he could have sworn the cat did too.
He set off through the trees with his charges, feeling remarkably content.