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Authors: Elizabeth; Mansfield

A Christmas Kiss

BOOK: A Christmas Kiss
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A Christmas Kiss

Elizabeth Mansfield

One

The sound of a blow, followed by a sharp cry and the thump-ker-thump of a body rolling down the stairs, did not seem to disturb the two young men seated before the comfortable fire in the library of Carbery Hall, dispiritedly sipping their after-dinner brandies. The imperturbable gentlemen, Reginald Windle, Viscount Farnham, and his friend James Everard, the someday-to-be Earl of Gyllford, were the guests of Geoffrey Carbery, an inattentive and irksome host who was, as usual, not to be found in their company.

“Did you hear thomething?” Reggie asked, his lisp emphasized by the effect of the brandy, which was also beginning to show in the heightened color of his rather chubby cheeks. Though turned out most fashionably in an evening coat cut for him by Mr. Brummell's own tailor, Reggie was a stone-and-a-half too heavy to be considered a Dandy. However, his generous nature and his ever-ready propensity to share with his friends the enormous fortune with which his father had endowed him made him an extremely popular member of that set. Even his inability to disguise his lisp did nothing to diminish his popularity.

Opposite him, deep in a tall, winged chair, his friend Jamie nodded disinterestedly. James Everard, on whose boyishly handsome face no trace of brandy yet showed, was a well-built young man of twenty-two. His curly auburn hair and shapely legs would have been decided assets had he aspired to Dandyism, but he cared only for sport. He was held in high esteem among the Corinthians for his prowess in boxing and his skill as a horseman. He had little interest in fashion. As Reggie had pointed out to him earlier in the evening, his clothes looked positively careless. His neck-cloth was tied in a quite commonplace fold, his shirtpoints were slightly wilted, and his breeches revealed the merest suggestion of a crease at the hipline. But such were the depths of despond into which the two friends had fallen that neither was much disturbed by these solecisms. “Sounds like someone's fallen,” Jamie murmured in answer to Reggie's question.

“Do you think we ought to have a look?” Reggie suggested mildly.

Jamie sighed and put down his glass. “Might as well,” he said, getting up and stretching. “There's nothing better to do.”

Reggie took a last sip of brandy as Jamie crossed the room and opened the door. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed at the sight that met his eyes.

“It's Geoff!” gasped Reggie, just behind him in the doorway.

There at the foot of the stairway lay their friend, Geoffrey Carbery, rubbing his head and blinking his eyes dazedly. Above him, halfway up the stairs, stood Miss Evalyn Pennington, the governess of his young sister and brother and the cause of his shameful neglect of his guests. When Jamie and Reggie had accepted his invitation to visit Carbery Hall for some good shooting while the autumn weather prevailed, they had expected a busy, active fortnight. But Geoff had taken one look at the governess and had been a useless host from then on. If he wasn't following her about on her walks with her charges, he was extolling her charms to his bored and unsympathetic friends. To no avail did Jamie point out to Geoff that his mother would never permit an alliance with a governess; to deaf ears did Reggie repeat the observation that Miss Pennington showed him not the slightest interest or encouragement. Geoffrey was deeply immersed in his first love and, as Jamie remarked to Reggie—with all the authority of complete lack of experience or interest—calf love was not an affliction known to respond to reason or restraint.

“Geoff, are you hurt?” Jamie asked. “Miss Pennington, is he hurt?”

“That is precisely what I intend to ascertain,” Miss Pennington answered coolly. She tucked the heavy volume she was carrying under her left arm, smoothed back a stray wisp of dusky hair with her right hand, and then came calmly down the stairs. “Will you be good enough to give me your assistance?” she asked, handing her book to the wide-eyed Reggie and kneeling down beside the fallen youth. Lifting Geoff's head onto her lap, she looked up at Jamie. “A brandy should do very well, I think,” she said.

Jamie shook himself into action, raced into the library, and hurried out with his own half-finished drink. He knelt beside his friend and forced the glass between Geoff's lips.

At the first swallow, Geoff shuddered and lifted his head. “What happened?” he asked foggily.

“I hit you with the Atlas,” the calm Miss Pennington replied, “and you tumbled down the stairs. I think you have a slight bruise, here behind your left ear, but I'm convinced it is of little consequence. Do get up, sir, and permit me to return to the nursery.”

But by this time Geoffrey had noted with appreciation the position in which he was luxuriating and was reluctant to surrender it. “May I lie here for a minute or two, please,” he pleaded, “until I feel a little more the thing?”

“Now don't be childish. Here are your friends, waiting to support you into the library where you'll be much more comfortable stretched out on the sofa near the fire,” Miss Pennington answered reasonably.

Jamie, filled with a combination of relief and disgust at his friend's words, began to put the pieces together. “Geoff, you devil's brat, don't tell me you accosted poor Miss Pennington right there on the stairs!”

“Well …” Geoff shifted in her lap uncomfortably.

“If that don't beat all!” Reggie exclaimed, shocked.

“Get up, you lobcock!” Jamie sputtered. “I wish she hadn't banged your head with that Atlas, so I could have done it properly, with my fists!”

Geoffrey groaned in anguish. “I didn't mean to … to … But after all, Evalyn, you never let me … You won't even listen to anything I have to say to you!”

Miss Pennington sighed. This was not the first household in which she'd been employed where a gentleman had been tempted to behave improperly. Several times in the past there had been gentlemen, young and not-so-young, who'd permitted themselves to embarrass her with improper advances. This unwanted masculine attention was puzzling to her, for she was convinced that her behavior gave them not a jot of encouragement. She was not aware that her dark curls framed a face that—while its features might be considered unexceptional—was made lovely by the serene expression of her mouth and the sparkling brightness of her grey eyes. Nor did she realize that she was slim and shapely and moved with supple grace.

In the past, the directness of her immediate rebuffs had sufficed to quell such amorous advances. This time, however, the smitten Geoffrey would not be discouraged. Even after she was brought to the necessity of defending herself with the Atlas, he still was persisting in his attempts to declare himself. She looked down at his head resting on her lap. “I know what you have to say to me,” she said firmly, “and I've told you over and over that it is a subject which needs no further discussion. Now, if you wish to prevent further embarrassment to yourself and to me, please let Mr. Everard and Lord Reginald help you up and take you to—”

A scream from the top of the stairs interrupted her. They all looked up to find Lady Carbery staring down at them aghast. “Geoffrey! Geoffrey, my darling boy, what is it? What has happened to you?” she cried as she hurried down the stairs. Reg and Jamie hastily lifted Geoff to his feet. Miss Pennington rose gracefully and brushed out her skirts.

“It's nothing at all, Mama,” Geoffrey muttered uncomfortably, “nothing at all. A little fall. I was a bit dazed, that's all.”

Lady Carbery's right eyebrow lifted suspiciously as she looked from one to the other. She was only partially relieved by the assurance that her eldest son had suffered no physical hurt. The presence of Miss Pennington in the midst of all this hugger-mugger made her large bosom swell with indignation. “Miss Pennington,” she said in coldly ominous tones, “will you kindly explain your presence here, surrounded by all these … er … by my son and his guests?”

“I was just excusing myself, ma'am,” Miss Pennington replied with her usual aplomb. “I was on my way to return this Atlas to the library. I had entertained little Algie with a bedtime tale of Samarkand, and he wanted to see where it was.”

“Never mind fobbing
me
off with bedtime stories, Miss! I distinctly saw you sitting on the floor with my son's head in your lap!”

“Oh, now, I say!” Jamie couldn't help remonstrating.

Lady Carbery looked at him icily. Guest or no guest, James Everard would not be permitted to interfere in her management of her household. Jamie met her eye, lowered his, and choked back any further comment.

“No need to rip up at Miss Pennington, Mama,” Geoff put in heroically. “All she did was try to help me after I fell.”

“I see,” Lady Carbery muttered. The inappropriateness of chastising Miss Pennington in front of her son and his guests belatedly occurred to her. “Very well. We'll say no more on this matter now. However, Miss Pennington, after you have replaced the Atlas and seen to the children, please come to me in my dressing room.” And with those dire words, she majestically turned and mounted the stairs.

Jamie looked at Miss Pennington with sympathy. “I'm afraid Geoff has placed you in a fix,” he said.

“Please don't concern yourself about me, sir,” Miss Pennington replied. “Lord Reginald, if you would be so kind as to replace that book, I'll return to my duties.” With a bow, she turned and made her way up the stairs, the graceful carriage of her head and the unhurried swing of her step giving no hint of her inner agitation.

But later, the three gentlemen, seated round the library fire, could not rid themselves of their feelings of oppression and guilt. “Mama is sure to give her notice. I've really done it this time,” Geoff muttered dejectedly.

BOOK: A Christmas Kiss
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