Peace and Goodwill Are Highly Overrated
Two years later, 1814
Two days before Christmas
Lord and Lady Bentley’s Annual Christmas House Party
Sophia was determined that this Christmas, she would no longer wish for something that could never be. Thankfully, Tristan was not coming this year. If she never saw him again, it would be too soon. Since he had become the Marquess of Bridebourne, the man had completely changed. He was no longer the sweet Tristan of her youth but the no-good, dissolute, not to mention depraved scourge of London society. Sophia had not been surprised when The Midnight Cryer, the most popular and infamous gossip rag in all the British Isles, had published an article detailing how the marquess had gone skinny dipping in the Serpentine with not one, not two, but four different women at the same time. He was even seen routinely buying baubles and expensive clothing for his mistresses and paramours.
Bridebourne was a rake through and through. Thank heavens he’d shown his true colors, or Sophia would have been married to the scoundrel.
She would not waste any more time thinking about him. She forced a smile on her face and entered the salon where all the guests and family mingled. Jubilant and boisterous conversations rang through the air. Everyone was making merry even the elders who were gathered by the crackling “re. This is where her heart longed to be. Celebrating the holidays with her dearest friends and family.
She inhaled deeply. The smell of mulled wine and spices filled the air. A table stood in the corner covered with fruit‐ cake, mince pies, delicate pastries, nuts, fruit, and candy. Children would run by and grab a handful of treats, then race of to be with their friends. The salon glowed in the light from the chandelier and a hearty fire crackled in the hearth. Even still, there was a chill in the air. She tightened her red silk shawl around her shoulders. No matter what, she’d make this the best Christmas ever.
“Sophia! You’re Finally here,” Elsie rushed to her side and swept her into a hug. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
“We?” She laughed as she returned the hug. She pulled away and studied her best friend from finishing school. Elsie had married Jeremy last year. They were simply besotted with one another.
By then, Jeremy had joined them. He pressed a kiss to Elsie’s cheek as he pulled her close with his arm around her waist. They tilted their faces to one another, an unmistakable look of love casting a glow about the two of them.
Sophia’s heart skipped a beat. That could have been her and Tristan. But he had never returned to her to celebrate Christmas or explain what had happened. When his parents had suffered a carriage accident, they’d been stranded overnight in freezing weather. Afterward, they’d both fallen ill. His brother Will had also been ill, but he’d fully recovered. Two months after Tristan had left that Christmas, he’d sent a letter to her father informing him that his parents had perished from pneumonia.
Tristan had become the fifth Marquess of Bridebourne. And she’d become a relic of his past. She bit her lip, hoping to quell such dispirited musings.
The past was in the past. She had her future and the holidays to look forward to.
“Cousin, my wife, and I have some news,” Jeremy pulled Elsie closer. “Tell her, darling.”
Elsie blushed and grabbed Sophia’s hand. “You’re the “first to know. But I’m increasing. The midwife confirmed it last week.”
Sophia couldn’t move for a moment. Her eyes prickled. Life kept forging ahead while she was stuck. If she and Tristan had married, they might have been in the same position as her cousin and best friend. She and Tristan might even have had a child of their own by now. Sophia forced herself to smile. She would not be sad or envious. She would celebrate this happy news with two of her favorite people in the world.
“Oh, Els, really?” She embraced her again. “Congratulations.” She caught Jeremy’s gaze. “To both of you.”
Jeremy blushed as he rocked back on his heels. “We’re beyond blessed and happy.”
Elsie pulled away and took one of Sophia’s hands in her own. “Will you be his or her godmother?”
“I would be delighted.” With her free hand, she poked a finger in Jeremy’s chest. “You both would be in serious trouble if you hadn’t asked me.” Sophia teased with a smile. “Such joyous news for the season.” She squeezed Elsie’s hand.
Just then, the handsome viscount, Lord James Newberry, joined them. Sophia had met him at last year’s house party. He was Elsie’s cousin from her mother’s side.
“Lady Sophia, welcome,” James said with a smile. “As soon as I saw you enter, I wanted to be one of the first to greet you.” He handed her a cup. “I even remembered how much you enjoyed a cup of wassail.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Thank you,” she said politely. The viscount was handsome. Everyone thought so. Blond hair and clear blue eyes added to his angelic appearance. He was a favorite among the unmarried ladies of the ton. Plus, he could melt any woman’s heart.
Perhaps even Sophia’s frozen one.
Her mother enjoyed him and thought him a good marriage prospect because he was the heir to a dukedom. Her father favored him because he wasn’t Tristan.
But her father would favor the butcher as a bridegroom so long as he wasn’t Tristan.
Last year, she and James had been caught under the mistletoe. A raucous cry had erupted from the guests and family who had gathered around them. Everyone wanted them to kiss in front of the entire party. She had just expected that he’d kiss her on the cheek or perhaps peck her lips, but James had surprised her. He’d taken her into his arms and given her a proper kiss. When he went to deepen it, Sophia’s father had loudly cleared his throat, a stark signal that the viscount had gone far enough.
James reluctantly had pulled away from her, then whispered, “That kiss was the only thing I wanted for Christmas.”
Sophia had blushed at the slow sensual smile on his lips. The man had wanted her.
Now, heat bludgeoned her cheeks as she recalled the feel of his lips against hers. They weren’t as full and soft as Tristan’s, but they were still nice. For the love of all Christmases everywhere, she had to put the blasted marquess out of her thoughts. She would not allow Bridebourne to ruin Christmas as he’d done last year.
She had washed her hands of him. Then and there, Sophia decided that she wouldn’t mind more kisses from the viscount and planned to spend time with him this holiday season.
Elsie and Jeremy pulled away to speak to another couple, leaving Sophia alone with James.
With a wicked smile on his face, he leaned close to whisper in her ears. “It’s my mission this yuletide to find mistletoe. I’ll pull it out of my pocket every time I see you.”
She grinned at his flirty tone. “I assure you that all the unmarried ladies who are attending would be thrilled to see your mistletoe.” She leaned closer as if divulging a secret. “Perhaps even a few of the married ladies would like to participate in your plan.” Her gaze roamed over the crowd until it landed on Great Aunt Caroline. Though she was in her eighth decade, she loved Christmas and mistletoe. “I know Great Aunt Caroline would love to be caught under the mistletoe with you.”
“I’m not interested in her. Plus, I save my mistletoe kisses for one woman only,” he teased. “Perhaps you’d be my partner tomorrow when we gather the greenery to decorate.”
She took a sip of the wassail and sighed. “Who said I’ll be out in the cold gathering holly and greenery?” She regarded him with a coy smile. “Perhaps I don’t save my mistletoe kisses for one man.”
His hand flew to his chest in mock horror, and he feigned a grimace. “You wound me, Lady Sophia.”
She shook her head and laughed. How she missed such romantic flirting. And the viscount was a master at it. During the last Season, he had women hanging on his every word. He’d called on Sophia several times and always danced with her when they attended the same balls. But it had never progressed beyond friendship. She’d always thought he’d want to pursue courtship, but she had never let him bring it up. Her heart was still wounded from Tristan’s abandonment.
“I was serious. Will you accompany me tomorrow when we search for mistletoe?” James’s usual arrogance was absent showing how unsure of himself he was around her.
Sophia found it endearing. She placed her hand on James’ arm. “I definitely want to be with you tomorrow.”
A burst of cold air entered the room with the new arrival of guests. A myriad of voices echoed welcome. Sophia glanced at the entrance to the salon. Immediately, her spirits plummeted to the soles of her feet.
Lord Will Fitz-James walked into the room with his older brother, Tristan, the Marquess of Bridebourne.
The man she’d given her heart to all those years ago. It had been such a waste. He didn’t want it or her.
Tristan could sense her presence as soon as he’d passed through the double doors of the huge Palladian house. His gaze swept across the black and white marble flooring of the entry to the staircase where the door hid their secret room.
His brother Will had already shed his greatcoat then top hat and given them to the footman dressed in scarlet livery. The servants at Thorneworth Hall always wore festive colors during the season. Even the maids wore green and scarlet aprons.
“Welcome, Lord Bridebourne. Lord William,” Thorneworth’s butler, Miles, called out in greeting. He pointed to the chandelier above them, where mistletoe was woven throughout the fixture. “We’re already in the season spirit, but you’re just in time for the nightly games to begin. Tomorrow, all the guests are expected to gather the greenery for decorating the hall.
Will’s face lit up brighter than the candles in the chandelier above them. “Excellent. I’m looking forward to it all.” He glanced over his shoulder at the doors. “It’s spitting snow. I hope it continues all night.” He looked to Tristan. “Come on, old man. Let the festivities begin.”
Tristan nodded at the butler and the footman, who took his greatcoat and beaver top hat as well.
“Right this way, gentlemen,” Miles announced as he escorted them through the hall to the great salon. Tristan hung back as memories flooded his thoughts. This hallway was the first place he’d ever kissed Sophia. It was a simple peck on the cheek when he’d been thirteen and she’d been eleven. It seemed like only yesterday, but it had been twelve long years ago. His chest tightened. This was the last place he’d wanted to be for Christmas, but Will had begged him to come. This was the first year that Tristan’s younger brother had wanted to celebrate since their family had been torn asunder two years ago.
Their younger sister Julia had recently married and was settled in London with her husband, the Duke of Farnham. They were happy and spending their first Christmas together. Tristan had worried about Julia being alone without him or Will for the holiday and had discussed it with the duke. Farnham had assured Tristan that he was only concerned with Julia’s welfare and would ensure that she’d have a beautiful Christmas.
Last year, Tristan and his siblings had forsworn Christmas festivities. It was too difficult to celebrate at Bride’s Abbey after their parents had died. It had been the bleakest two years of his life. But there were small miracles to be thankful for. His younger brother, Lord William, had fully into somewhat of a rake. It had been a full-time job for Tristan to keep Will out of trouble, especially when Will had decided he was in love with a rather unsuitable woman. Thankfully, Miss Browning was out of his brother’s life forever.
Those two years past had felt like a decade. Tristan had never had the chance to discuss his proposal to Sophia with her parents. Perhaps it had been for the best.
Tristan glanced at all the portraits of Lord Bentley’s ancestors lining the wall. He felt as morose as the subjects in the paintings gazing down upon him.
Miles showed them into the room, then bowed. With a crisp turn, the butler made his way back to the front of the house to wait for the guests, who still hadn’t arrived.
The hardy cries of welcome greeted them as they moved into the room crowded with people. Will’s friends from university rushed to pat him on the back and renew their acquaintance. The smile on his younger brother’s face warmed the cold encasing Tristan’s heart.
“I’m glad we’re here,” Will said and slapped Tristan on the back.
At least that made one of them. Instead of saying it aloud, Tristan just smiled.
Lady Bentley came forward and greeted them. “Welcome back, Lord Bridebourne and Lord William. We’re simply delighted that you are spending Christmas here.” Lady Bentley put her hand on Tristan’s arm and squeezed it affectionately. A footman stopped beside him and offered a glass of wassail. Tristan nodded his thanks and took the glass.
Lord Bentley extended his hand for a shake, and Tristan took it with his free hand. The large salon seemed to glimmer with excitement. Nothing seemed to have changed. It was exactly the same as two years ago. Children were playing. The younger people were flirting with one another, and the elders were slowly becoming foxed. There wasn’t a glimpse of her, and immediately, Tristan relaxed.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, Bridebourne.” The earl’s rounded belly jiggled as he laughed at his own jest. “You’re staying through the first of the new year, I hope.”
Tristan was about to say yes when out of the corner of his eyes, he saw her. Sophia was in profile, talking with Lord Newberry, and for a moment, Tristan was speechless. When the sound of her laughter reached him, it felt like he’d been stabbed with a hot poker. How many nights had he tried to recall the sound of her voice or her laughter?
Too many times to count.
Yet, Tristan couldn’t deny that Lady Sophia Rowan had grown even more lovely since the last time he’d seen her. She wore a red velvet dress that accentuated, rather than hid her curves, and her black hair was woven into an elegant coiffeur. When she turned to look his way, he lost his breath from the sight of her turquoise-blue eyes. Her cheeks had become more angular, and the perfect curve of her full lips was just as he remembered, including the enticing shade of rose pink.
Would they still taste as sweet as they had all those years ago? He shook his head to clear the memory. By her stare, she didn’t want him anywhere near her.
Which was perfectly fine with Tristan. Just looking at her conjured all sorts of ill will. He’d be damned if he spent this Christmas with her. Not after she had jilted him this same time last year.
He wanted to chastise himself for such a sour holiday spirit, but to the devil with her.
“Bridebourne, is everything all right?” Lord Bentley asked.
“Yes, of course. However, I’m not certain of my plans. I waiting to hear from my solicitor.” Tristan slid a side-eyed glance in Sophia’s direction. He would make some excuse that his solicitor needed him. And he would pretend that he’d heard from the man within the hour, which would allow Tristan enough time to make it to the coaching inn five miles away. There was no way he’d stay under this roof with her. “I’ve given him directions to send a post to me here. I’m buying some property adjacent to Bride’s Abbey.”
Lord Bentley chuckled. “Bridebourne, no one does any business this time of the year. You’d best prepare yourself for a long stay. It’s snowing now.”
As the couple excused themselves to greet another guest, Tristan glanced around the room, trying to find Will. Once Tristan had located him chatting with a group of his old university friends, he’d tried to capture his brother’s attention with a nod to come by his side. However, Will was too engrossed in the conversation to pay Tristan any attention. The smile on his face radiated happiness. For Tristan, the best present this Christmas could bring was seeing his brother actually happy again and not on the road to self-destruction.
Careful not to have to interact with that woman, Tristan circled the room. He sensed her gaze on his movements. It was like having a bull’s eye painted on his back. He had little doubt that if she had a quiver and bow, she’d aim her arrow directly at him.
He felt the same, but he was a gentleman. He would not act upon his anger. It would cause tonight’s activities to become uncomfortable for everyone. The best thing for all involved was for him to inform Will of his plans and leave before the snow became too deep for travel.
“Bridebourne,” a lady’s voice called out.
He stopped and glanced at Miss Amanda Pickering, the daughter of one of his father’s best friends, Mr. Reginald Pickering. His father and Mr. Pickering had attended boarding school together. Pickering had made his fortune in real estate. The man had a knack for picking up distressed properties and renovating them, then selling them for a huge profit. More and more people were moving to London and needed housing.
“Hello, Amanda.” Tristan leaned in and kissed her cheek. She’d just turned eighteen and was preparing for her second season. Everyone expected her to marry this year.
“Bridebourne, I’m so delighted you’re here.” Her excitement made her eyes shine. “Will and I are going on a sleigh ride this evening if it’s possible to reach the lake. Hopefully, the snow will stop soon.”
Tristan closed his eyes, as it was exactly two years ago tonight that he’d asked Sophia to marry him. His life had been so simple and carefree. He’d been in love with a beautiful woman who hadn’t love him enough in return. When he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of Amanda’s parents and nodded their direction. “Both of you be careful. I know what happens on those sleigh rides.”
Her cheeks colored. “Then you should come with us as our chaperone. Do say you’ll join us.”
“That’s very kind, but sleighing is for young people,” Tristan said.
“Pfft, you’re only twenty-five,” she retorted.
“Old enough to know that sleighing isn’t for me anymore. If you’ll excuse me?” He continued to make his way around the room, cautious to avoid Sophia.
It took him a half hour to reach his brother’s side. He’d been stopped by practically every guest except Sophia. He took a moment and gazed at his younger brother. Will had taken their parents’ deaths the hardest. He’d once confided to Tristan that he’d felt guilty for surviving with a mere cough. Then, Will had turned reckless and wild at university, racking up debt after debt. The marquessate was flush with cash, so Tristan had paid his brother’s debts without a lecture. However, his younger brother had turned to the demimonde after he’d quit gambling. That had been a nightmare in and of itself.
But looking at Will now, he was beaming and joking and frolicking with his friends. At twenty years of age, he was turning into a man.
“Bridebourne,” Will called as he put his arm over Tristan’s shoulder. “You know everyone here.”
Tristan quickly exchanged greetings with Will’s friends, then turned to him. “May I have a word in private?”
He didn’t wait but took the nearest exit he could find. Luckily, it was in the empty ballroom. What he had to say, he didn’t want anyone to overhear. Will followed, and Tristan shut the door behind them.
“She’s here, and I’m not staying,” he said curtly.
“Bridebourne, no.” Will ran a hand down his face. “We just arrived.”
“You stay. I’ll leave. I’ll send a carriage for you on New Year’s Day. I know how much you want to be here this Christmas.” Tristan patted his brother’s back. “You deserve a wonderful holiday.”
“What about you?” Will shook his head in disbelief, then his gaze locked on Tristan. “This is our Christmas.” He waved a hand between them. “I don’t want to stay if I can’t be with you.”
“Will,” Tristan said gently. “I’m not going to be selfish and make you leave.”
Will let out a resigned sigh. “I won’t stay if you’re not here. Christmas is a time for renewal of relationships with friends and family.” When he swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbed, betraying how hard the conversation was for him. “I know Sophia broke your heart, but perhaps her heart has suffered as well.”
Tristan scoffed at such a statement. “If you recall, she jilted me.”
“And you’re the one who left for London and didn’t write her,” Will retorted. He took a deep breath. “It’s not my place to say such things. I apologize.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he regarded Tristan. “I’m begging you to stay.”
“I did write her the first year.” But he’d never mailed the letter. “Why in the devil would you want to stay here?” Tristan asked as his voice grew louder. “This is where I received news of your and our parents’ accident.”
“Because it’s also the place where my happiest Christmas memories reside and theirs too.” By now, Will had raised his voice to match Tristan’s. “You, Julia, and me, along with Father and Mother. All the games, feasts, not to mention the snow that always fell. It’s magical here.” He tilted his head to the ceiling. “I just want a little of that magic again in my life,” he said softly. “And I want to share it with you.”
Every one of Tristan’s arguments tiptoed out of the room without a look back. He’d do anything for his siblings, which apparently now included staying under the same roof as Lady Sophia.
He just had to figure out how to hide in his room for the next eight days.
They opened the door to return to the salon when Will pointed a finger. “Look. There she is now. Let’s greet her and get this unpleasantness behind us.”
Tristan wanted to say that he’d rather kiss a wildcat or dance with the devil, but he didn’t say any of that aloud.
“It’s not the best time,” Tristan growled.Return to Under the Marquess’s Mistletoe