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 email@example.com
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
THE CHRISTMAS KING
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.
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.