Authors: Rose Gordon
Mistletoe and Michaelmas
This book is a work of fiction. All names, events and locales are a product of this author’s imagination. If any name, event and/or locale did exist, it is purely by coincidence it appears in this book.
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MISTLETOE AND MICHAELMAS
Copyright © 2015 C. Rose Gordon
All rights reserved.
December 19, 1816
The last thing eighteen year-old Daphne Cavanaugh wanted to do was to ride all the way to Yorkshire and spend Christmas acting as her sister Jane’s companion.
It wasn’t that she disliked her sister, mind you. She loved Jane. Adored her even. And perhaps was the most excited of all of her sisters when Jane, an invalid, won the heart of an earl four years earlier without even trying.
But that didn’t mean Daphne
to travel to Yorkshire in the brutal and bone chilling cold to spend the most joyous holiday ever celebrated with a slew of stuffy, old relations she didn’t know—and all for the sake of allowing Jane and Gareth, Lord Worthe, a chance to escape her unusually curious family for a few weeks!
And how fortunate for Daphne, she was the one chosen to accompany Jane and Gareth. She frowned. That didn’t sound very kind. Truly, Gareth and Jane were good people. And so was the whole Whitton family, to be truthful. A wry smile played over her lips. Well, at least she’d
they were a good family. She’d never actually met her great grandfather, James Whitton, Duke of Danby. Her entire family had always been invited to spend Christmas at his ducal estate, but had never attended before.
“Don’t look so glum, Daphne,” Jane said, stealing her attention. “This will give you a taste of what your Season will be like next spring.”
Daphne’s mouth went dry in less than a second. Call her unusual and strange and everything that no good young lady of breeding should be, but she did not want a Season. There was something about being put on display for gentlemen to ogle and decide, based almost completely on looks and the depths of her brother’s coffers, if she’d make a suitable wife. She sighed and on their own accord her lips twisted. She did wish to marry, but not by being auctioned off to the highest bidder, so to speak.
“Gads, I do hope that won’t be the expression you’ll wear when you enter the Marriage Mart,” Gareth teased.
“Why?” Daphne cocked her head to the side. “Do you think such an expression will garner me an unsuitable suitor?”
“Indeed,” Gareth said, grimacing. “One with at least eighty years in his dish.”
Despite herself, Daphne laughed. But only a little. “I’m sure he’ll be superb.”
“While many young ladies marry significantly older gentlemen I don’t think you’d really want to find out,” Jane commented. She was right, the last thing Daphne wanted was her own Methuselah. Jane smoothed her burgundy traveling skirt as the carriage came to a stop in front of a grand, grey stone estate, appropriately named Danby Castle. “Just remember this is only a sampling of what London will be like and we’re not here for you to find a husband.”
“You two might not be, but I am,” Gareth said with a wink in Daphne’s direction. “Ever since Holbrook asked me to act as your guardian until he returns from the Continent I have been on the hunt for you for a husband. You just never know, he might be just over there—” he nodded his head toward the window. Daphne peered through the window, then shuddered. Not fifteen feet from the carriage stood a group of men dressed in the finest of furs. Every one of them with a silver flask in one hand and a cheroot in the other, creating a cloud of smoke that could rival the chimneys at Castlemoor during wintertime.
“No, thank you,” she muttered, falling back against the squabs to wait for the coachman to open the door.
“Not to worry, Daph.” Jane patted her knee. “I wouldn’t allow Gareth to marry you off to one of them—”
“Thank you, I’m quite relieved,” Daphne said with perhaps a drop of sarcasm.
a much better catch.” Jane gave her head a pointed nod toward the window behind Daphne.
Slowly, Daphne craned her neck so she could get a look at the man Jane had alluded to marrying her off to.
When she saw him, she froze. He looked like a bear—and that was no exaggeration. Either he was a brute of a man, of a gargantuan height and broad build or he was as skinny as a riding crop and was wearing four fur coats. She highly doubted that though. He wore a thick beaver felt hat and had a scarf wrapped around his neck and lower face, revealing only a set of sapphire eyes that were the same shade as the brook behind Holbrook Hall where she grew up, they shimmered the same way, too. Daphne shivered.
Jane arched a dark brow. “Decidedly?”
“Yes,” Daphne confirmed. “That man looks as if he could eat me!”
Jane’s laugher filled the carriage. Gareth allowed a small smile and a cough and then another smile and then shook his head. Daphne had never seen him act so odd.
Before she could ponder what was wrong with him, the coachman wrenched open the door, Jane’s invalid chair already in place at the bottom of the steps. Daphne bit her lip. Jane had had an accident when she was a young girl, rendering both of her legs useless—an unfortunate circumstance that Jane would not allow to become a hindrance for anything she wanted to do: even spending a few weeks of the winter in a cold, icy place such as this.
Gareth slid one arm under Jane’s legs and the other around her shoulders, then lifted her up and carried her down the three steps of the traveling coach to the safety of her chair, then turned around and reached a hand up for Daphne.
“Thank you,” she murmured, taking her brother-in-law’s hand. She climbed down and fell in stride beside Gareth as he pushed Jane’s chair toward the front of the house.
Not an auction. Not a perusal of the Marriage Mart. Not a coming together because if they married it’d be beneficial for their families or their finances. Love. Pure, plain and simple.
Nearing the steps, the trio came to a halt as Dawson, the butler, called for the four footmen standing in the corner to come lower the boards they each held over the right side of the steps that led to the front of the house. Daphne glanced down to Jane who’d always acted a little uncomfortable when anyone did anything to accommodate her. Behind Jane, Gareth stood quiet, his chin inclined as if nothing was out of the ordinary. And it wasn’t—right down to the way he placed his hands on Jane’s shoulders, in a gesture Daphne had seen many times when Jane was uncomfortable and Gareth was trying to quietly reassure that everything would be all right. Daphne’s heart constricted. Again, just one more gesture of love.
Or perhaps what made her heart constrict was the heavy hand she suddenly felt on her own shoulder.
“Pardon me,” she said, jerking in surprise.
“No need to beg my pardon,” a deep, masculine voice said behind Daphne, making her once constricted heart start pounding out of control.
Daphne whirled around to get a look at the forward man and froze. It was the man with the sparkling blue eyes and enough coats on to be confused for a bear. But now that he was closer to her, she could get a better look at his face—or at least what was revealed of it. His skin was pale, but clear and unblemished save for the handful of lines around his eyes. His eyes, which appeared dark at first, had even darker lines and golden flecks in his iris. How unusual...and yet, mesmerizing. She could hardly tear her eyes away and only did so when the lines around his deepened and he said, “Don’t get lost in them yet, we still have to walk up the icy steps.”
Daphne swallowed audibly and flushed with embarrassment of being caught staring at the same time, but that only embarrassed her more.
“Come now, I’ll escort you so you don’t fall.” His voice was calm and gentle, just as was the hand he placed on her arm just above the elbow.
From her peripheral vision she caught a glimpse of a grinning Gareth and the wretched man had the audacity to wink at her once again.
“Th-thank you for helping me to the top of the steps, Mr. —” Daphne waved her gloved hand around in a wide circle.
“Lentz,” the man supplied, giving her arm a gentle squeeze that sent hot sparks shooting through her entire midsection. “Aaron Lentz.”
“You have my deepest gratitude for escorting my sister-in-law over such a most treacherous terrain, Mr. Lentz,” Gareth said in what could only be described as his most authoritative voice—which was a rarity, to be sure. “Will we be seeing more of you for the holiday?”
Daphne went rigid. Had Gareth been serious about trying to foist her off on the first gentleman he could find who'd be willing to take her as his wife? Would it truly be so bad if that turned out to be
one? The very thought turned her blood to ice. Not fifteen minutes ago she was nearly certain she’d likely never find someone she'd want to marry and now she was practically betrothing herself to a stranger—albeit a handsome one, but the fact remained, he was still a stranger.
“Are you coming inside with us, Daphne? Or are you waiting for something under the mistletoe?” Jane asked.
“Yes,” she chirped, then coughed; heat flooding her face yet again. She didn't even dare to look above her to see if there was indeed a sprig of mistletoe hanging above her head.
Beside her, Gareth muttered something that sounded oddly like
Daphne pursed her lips. “Is something amiss, Gareth?”
“No, I’m sure there’ll be other chaps here for you to set your cap on.”
She forced a laugh, what a ridiculous notion that she’d have ‘set her cap’ on
gentleman after only just meeting him!
Aaron Lentz stood motionless as the most beautiful young lady he’d ever had the pleasure of speaking to walked inside Danby Castle.
“Not staying, did you say?” came the familiar voice of the Duke of Danby, his question punctuated by an echoing tap of the older man’s cane on the stone.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” Aaron confirmed. Since when did Lord Danby take to eavesdropping? He almost laughed at himself. What was he thinking? Though he’d only met the man last summer when he’d first moved to the local village to take over the post of Mr. Frisk who’d proceeded Mr. Beaumont as the local vicar, he knew one thing about Danby: he was a meddler of the worst sort. But not in a bad way exactly...he was trying to be helpful. The important word being:
“Well, m’boy, as it would happen we have an extra chamber...”
Aaron’s heart slammed in his chest. He’d like to stay. He really would. But at what cost? It was rumored that in 1812 the duke had had a large gathering over Michaelmas and several of his unsuspecting grandchildren were married off during their stay. Would Danby try to marry
off to that young lady who he hardly knew before Michaelmas? She was beautiful, to be sure; and he wouldn’t deny it, it was nice to see her a little befuddled, but to be his
? The bitter taste that usually filled his mouth when the very thought of matrimony entered his mind didn't flood his mouth—
“Gads, boy, I just need you to be around should any of my grandchildren decide, on their own accord, of course—”
— “to suddenly marry over the holiday.” He thumped his cane again and said, “I’m just asking you to marry one of them, not
one of them.”
Aaron eyed the man askance. “That’s it? You’re not going to try to play matchmaker?”
Danby’s shrewd eyes widened and he threw his free hand up in the air. “Who would ever accuse me of such a thing?”
“I can think of a few.”
“No, I just merely helped them see what was already there.”
Aaron didn’t believe that for a minute, but his concern wasn’t so much what had already happened, he couldn’t change that. But what he wouldn’t stand for is if the duke tried to play matchmaker with him. “Do I have your word you won’t be doing that with me, Your Grace?”
Aaron fought the urge to groan. “Play matchmaker—”
“I already told you I don’t do such,” Danby cut in, frowning.
“Indeed. What about playing any other sort of games?”
“Now, I can’t go banning games around this house, young man.” His voice was filled with all the ducal authority that would take a lifetime to master. “Why everyone loves whist and the ladies like charades and—”
“You are a clever one, aren’t you, Your Grace?”
“My wife always thought so.”
“I’m sure she did,” Aaron muttered. “I’m afraid I—”
“Left your clothes and such at home,” Danby interrupted, clapping him on the shoulder. “Not to worry, Mr. Lentz, I will have my man fetch whatever you may require.”
With less protest than he knew he ought to give, Aaron allowed Lord Danby to steer him into his home, half-heartedly grumbling, “Your Grace, have you ever accepted ‘no’ for an answer?”
“Never.” Danby stopped them in front of a stoic footman, squeezed Aaron’s shoulder and said, “And when the time comes, neither should you.” And with that, the duke walked away.
Aaron looked around the oversized bedchamber the duke had seen fit to assign him and let out a chuckle. Either the duke was hoping a comfortable vicar was a willing-to-conduct-an-impromptu-wedding vicar or the man had lied and
have plans to marry Aaron off. He refused to contemplate the second possibility too much.
“Sir, may I get a list of what you'd like me to have your man prepare for your stay?” asked a livered footman from the open door.
Aaron snorted. “Had I a man, as you say, I'd be delighted to send you off with a list.” He released an over-exaggerated sigh. “But alas, I will accompany you.”
And perhaps feign a sudden illness so I don't have to come back and be part of this chaos.
As if the footman could read his mind, he shifted from one foot to the other. “If you haven't a man, I can look through—”
“And take a chance that you'll forget to bring my favorite garish yellow and purple dressing robe, absolutely not!”
The footman's eyes widened, presumably at the idea of such a hideous garment, and Aaron did his best to keep a straight face.
“We shall go together.”
“But, sir, it is my assignment to make sure you're in want of nothing and...” The young lad fidgeted again.
“That I don't disappear?”
The younger man gave a single nod—and a gulp.
“Very well, we shall go together and you have my word, as a gentleman—and as a vicar—that I shall dutifully return.”
True to his word, three hours later, Aaron reentered that same bedchamber with enough clothes to keep him from scandalizing any young ladies for seven full days—and nights.
An hour after Aaron's return, it was time to gather in the drawing room and wait for dinner to be announced. Ever the dutiful local vicar who had been invited to the duke's house party for no other reason than to be there in case anyone decided to marry, Aaron went downstairs to wait with the rest of the duke’s pawns...er....family and friends.
Aaron knew that enchanting woman from earlier would be there, and yet, when he saw her he was just as taken by her then as he had been when he’d first seen her on the steps. Petite and slender, blonde haired and fair-skinned, with amber eyes she was a vision standing in the corner of the room, admiring the crimson pedals on the poinsettia that was overflowing from the pot in the back corner.
Unable to see, or hear, anyone else in the room Aaron walked straight over to her as if there were an imaginary string connecting the two.
Just then, she looked up. Her eyes flared wide and her hand flew to her chest. “You frightened me.” She gave a half smile. “Again.”
He returned her weak smile with a wide grin. “That was not my intent.”
“Now or before?”
He tipped his left shoulder up in a lopsided shrug. “You’ll never know.” Just as he’d hoped, she gave a light laugh at his jest.
“Well then, I suppose I shall have to return the favor.”
He studied her face, pausing for an extra second on her bright red lips. “I’ll be looking forward to it.” He proffered his arm. “And in the meantime, can I look forward to having you as my dinner companion?”
“Do you always find a young lady to attach yourself to?”
“No.” He poked out his bottom lip and gave his head a slight shake. “I only become a barnacle to the ones I think I might like.”
All of the air left Daphne’s lungs in one swift
and she prayed she didn’t do anything stupid like gasp. Judging by the expression on Mr. Lentz’s face, either she hadn’t done anything to embarrass herself or he was too stunned, likely by his own bold statement, to have noticed—the latter option rather flattered her.
Jane delicately cleared her throat from where she sat beside Daphne, reminding Daphne that she was still in a room full of people and needed to take Mr. Lentz’s arm.
“I’d be honored to be your dinner companion,” she murmured. “Won’t seats be assigned?” she asked after they'd made it across the threshold of the drawing room.
“Perhaps.” His nonchalant response almost made Daphne laugh. Almost. He reached his free hand across his chest and covered her hand with his. “If they do—and for some unknown reason we’re not seated together—at least I shall have the pleasure of your company on my walk to the dining room.”
“Soak it up, Mr. Lentz, we have what—” Daphne craned her neck to see how far away from the dining room entrance they were— “about ten more feet.”
“Oh, I will,” he said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze that sent a tingling sensation from the spot his hand covered all the way up her arm.
Daphne bit her lip. Did she want there to be arranged seats that would separate her from Mr. Lentz and his unnerving touches or if luck would be in her favor— She squelched that thought immediately.
Gracious she hardly knew the man and she certainly shouldn’t be enjoying his simple, and quite frankly, forward touches. Her second eldest sister, Charlotte, had once mentioned that rules are more relaxed at house parties, but surely that didn’t mean gentlemen took it upon themselves to be so forward with ladies they’d just met. Just as the time when she was young and her younger sister Olive accidentally spilled her lemon ice on Daphne’s skirts, a chill ran through Daphne from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Was this man—
a vicar no less
—so depraved or did
give off an aura that shouted wanton?
“Are you all right?” Mr. Lentz’s sudden question startled her.
“I—I...” She looked all around the room as if she’d find the perfect response written on the wall. “I’m fine,” she said at last.
He chuckled. “That was not very convincing, Miss Cavanaugh.” Mr. Lentz steered Daphne toward the end of the table and pulled a chair out for her. “But if you feel the need to claim you’re feeling well so you spend more time with me, I’ll gladly accept that as a compliment of the highest regard.”
“I’m sure you would.” She took her seat, noting the suddenly unsure expression on Mr. Lentz’s face. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
He took his seat next to her then looked at her; his brows knitting further. “First you compliment me, then you're sarcastic to me about my acknowledging your compliment and
you want to apologize.” He shook his head ruefully. “As long as I live, I might never understand your sex.”
“They aren't made to be understood, Mr. Lentz,” Danby said as he passed behind them. “They're made to love.”
Daphne wasn't sure what to say to that and was spared when her great grandfather, who she'd only met for the first time a few hours earlier, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, then leaned close and whispered. “There, I've set him straight, now it's up to you to set the hook.”
Had Daphne been the type to swoon, she might have done so on the spot.
Set the hook
. Even she knew enough about the atrocious activity of fishing to know what he'd meant. She just hoped Mr. Lentz hadn't heard her great grandfather's words and thought she was out to snare him. Which, she was not!
Tamping down her embarrassment, she chanced a glance at Mr. Lentz from under her eyelashes and froze. He was staring at her!
“Such a fetching color on you,” he murmured. The left corner of his mouth tipped up. “Your cheeks are a perfect compliment to your red gown.”
“I agree,” Danby said.
Why hadn't he gone off to his seat yet?
“I've always thought a lady's blush was the most attractive thing a man could behold.”
The gentleman seated on the other side of Daphne guffawed. “I can think of something more comely than a blush.”
A few chuckles rang out among the gentlemen seated nearby at the table, but were silenced when Danby thumped his cane. “That'll be enough of that talk, Lord Grange. Or you can sleep with the dogs where you belong.” He turned back to Daphne and said quietly, “Not all men are depraved. Scoot your chair about three inches to your left when the footmen bring the soup and you're guaranteed to have a suitable husband before the New Year.”
A heated flush washed over Daphne from head to toe.
A husband before the New Year!
Was even Danby trying to foist her off? She murmured something she hoped was her understanding of his suggestion, though she didn't plan to act on it, and turned her attention to her place setting that had just had a bowl of turtle soup set right before her.
“Does that help?” Mr. Lentz asked quietly after a few minutes had passed. His tone was so soft and smooth, not full of the arrogance or condescension she'd expected after her great grandfather's words.
Daphne met his eyes; they were full of concern. “I beg your pardon?”
“Does staring so intently at something you don't want to eat help you eat it?”
A small, uncontrollable giggle pushed past her lips. “Unfortunately, no.” She dunked her spoon in the bowl and fished out a turtle head. “Do you suppose Myrtle the Turtle's brain is still in here?”
Mr. Lentz's blue eyes lit and he choked on his laughter. “I never thought about that. I was always put off by the eyeballs staring up at me from my bowl.”
She cringed. “I try not to look.”
“I'm sure tonight it helps that you have such a handsome gentleman you can look at instead.”
Daphne made a show of turning to her right and giving a nice long perusal of Lord Grange. She turned back toward Mr. Lentz and flashed him her best smile. “I daresay, you are correct, Mr. Lentz. Lord Grange is quite dashing with his purple nose and the small bush of curly grey hair poking out of his ear.”