A Quickie….

Here’s a story for you. I originally wrote it as a guest post for a “Christmas Fire” blog theme.  Now I am sharing it with you.

 

Cumbria, England, 1811

Georgina Ellis pulled her cloak tighter around shoulders and told herself she would on no account look to her left. She did not want to see his home. She was not here to remember how big a fool she’d made of herself. She was here to be her father’s eyes and heart.
The cold cut through her, though she wore her warmest cloak and thickest gloves. When she was a child young enough to be held, her father would bring her here, just the two of them. He’d walk to the very edge with her in his arms, and they would gaze at beauty. He gave her a kiss on the cheek for pointing out the things she knew. To the right, their home.  A kiss. Colbourn Close, Lord St. Aubyn’s house, there, to the left, where she would not look.  A kiss. An eagle, Papa. A kiss. The river. A kiss. Mama’s grave. A kiss.
Here she stood today, with only her memories of those days. She walked to the edge of the escarpment. Right to the very edge. Until there was only air beneath the tips of her boots. A familiar tingle raced up the back of her legs. Her chest tingled, too, and her breath caught. As always, the sensation thrilled her. She did not look to her left. He did not deserve even a moment of her attention.
Why then, a tiny voice asked, does your heart pain you so? If she were over the heartbreak, she’d be able to look at his house. Wouldn’t she?
“For God’s sake, step away from there.”
The familiar voice shot through her and she had to gather herself before she trusted herself to turn. He stood ten feet from her. Close enough to see he’d not changed at all. He extended a hand. As if she’d touch him. She tipped her head to one side. “Oh, it’s you.”
St. Aubyn put one booted foot atop a protruding rock. The upturned collar of his coat was horribly dashing. She hated him for it. “It’s you.”
“How clever of you.” He was as handsome as ever, with his brown eyes and too strong nose. Alas, she was as foolish at twenty-five as she had ever been. She still loved him. She turned her back to him and wished him gone.
“Miss Ellis. Please. Move away from the edge. You’ll fall.”
“I shan’t.” She looked to her left and feigned shock and horror. “My God, Colbourn Close is on fire.”
“Tisn’t.”
“I’m sure I see flames. You’ve quite the Christmas fire going down there.” Smoke curled lazily from several of the chimneys. She watched the speck of a servant walking a horse from the stable block to the paddock. “Fly, sir, like the wind, or you will lose everything.”
“Have pity on me, won’t you?”
She turned around. Her knees were jelly. She’d been in society enough to know he wasn’t the most handsome man in the world, but even in London, he’d make a good showing. “I shan’t do that either.”
He stared at the ground, his hat in one hand. “Miss Ellis.”
“Lord St. Aubyn.” She curtseyed.
“Come away from the ledge.”
“No.” She gave him her back once more and took in the vista her father so loved.
“Please?”
With a sigh, she walked away from the edge of the cliff. She’d risked her heart for him and had been given a disappointing answer. It was not his fault he did not love her in return. He watched her march past him. She had her pride. Later she might regret feeling so very satisfied that he’d expected her to stop and she hadn’t.
He caught her arm, his fingers sliding down her arm until he had her wrist. She tugged, but he did not budge. In London, she had mastered the art of the killing glance. Ruthless now, she used it on him. “Release me, St. Aubyn.”
He didn’t.
“It’s Christmas day, and your house is on fire. Surely, you have better things to do than mock me again. Will you really risk everything for such poor sport?”
“My house is not on fire.”
“I assure you it is.” She yanked on her arm and his fingers loosened. She nodded toward the escarpment. “See for yourself.”
He scowled at her.
“You know I never lie.”
While he strode to the edge to see for himself, she hurried down the path.
“There’s no fire,” he bellowed. The wind carried his words away, but she heard them and walked faster. He caught up with her halfway to the bottom. She increased her pace. So did he. He spoke directly over her head. Drat the man for being so tall. “I owe you an apology.”
With every step she knew the best way to maintain her dignity would be to listen to him with an empty smile while he pretended to be sorry. At the end she could say, I accept your apology. Then she could go on with her life with all the loose ends neatly snipped. Except she couldn’t. Words stuck in her throat along with tears and resentment and hurt and the painful knowledge that she had loved him for as long as she could remember, and he had let her go on wearing her heart on her sleeve while he flirted with every woman in the world except her.
“I am in love with you, Miss Ellis.” His words rang out. Sharp. Determined.
She stumbled but caught herself and kept walking. The road was in sight now and she could see he’d tied his horse to the back of her carriage.
“I was an oaf and a fool. Selfish and proud.” His legs were a deal longer than hers and now that they were nearly to the stile between the field and the road, he had the advantage. He matched her stride for stride. “Vain. Stubborn. Blind. Cruel to you, who deserved so much better.”
She whirled on him and jabbed a finger at him. “Don’t you dare pity me. I am not a pitiful woman.”
“No. You are not.” He looked her up and down, then stuck out a hand to help her over the stile. “Foolish. I was a fool.”
“You said that already.” Her coachman sat up straight while her groom tucked a flask into his coat and jumped down from the top of the carriage. “However, with all your many faults, I feel I can forgive you the repetition.”
“A bloody damn fool.”
“You will not curse in my presence, sir.” Her groom glanced the other way and reversed course to the other side of the carriage. Her coachman coughed once and pulled his hat lower on his head. “Finney, do fetch Lord Aubyn his horse.”
St. Aubyn moved close. Too close. “I told myself it wasn’t possible that the woman my father wanted and expected me to marry would ever be woman I wanted to marry. You were perfect, he always said. Beautiful and polite and amusing. Even I could see everyone is happier around you.” He towered over her, staring at her, eyes flashing. “You’d settle me, my father said. Make me a better man. Naturally, I told him to go to hell. I beg your pardon.” He bowed. “And than I  said much the same to you, I’m sorry to say.”
She sucked in a breath. “Finney?” From the other side of the carriage, her groom let out a groan. “Do please let’s go. We ought not detain Lord St. Aubyn while his life goes to ruin.”
St. Aubyn slapped his palm on the carriage door and sent poor Finney a glare that put her killing gaze to utter shame. “I am sorry for that. For everything. For all the wrongs I did you.” He put the fingers of his other hand to her cheek and turned her head to his. “Miss Ellis. My dearest. My darling.”
She put her hand over his mouth. “I’ll thank you not to say what you don’t mean.”
He twisted his head, and she dropped her hand. “I shan’t. I won’t.”
“Liar.”
“Never. I’ve learned my lesson. I am in ruins if you leave again. While you were gone”—He shook his head—“when you left, my life diminished. I didn’t notice right away, it came on so slowly.”
“Nothing but ashes when you return home.” She couldn’t think anymore why she thought she liked tall men. St. Aubyn was taking up all the space.
“I’d think, there’s an amusing thing that’s happened. Miss Ellis will want to hear that, and I’d realize I couldn’t tell you.”
“A shame you were so deprived.” Coward that she was, she could not bring herself to look at him. “I do love a good story.”
He snorted. “You know you’re most often in the middle of them.”
“Nonsense.”
“I’d tell some other woman she was beautiful and think she was no match for you. You cannot imagine how that enraged me.”
She patted his cheek. “Poor man.”
“You took my heart with you when you left. Impossible, I said. It’s impossible I could love you so desperately.”
“Yes. As you once told me. At great length.” One of the servants coughed while she held her breath and prayed for her heart not to leap from her chest. “Not now, Finney. I believe Lord St. Aubyn is groveling.” She whispered, “Aren’t you?”
“Yes.” He held her gaze, and she was back on that cliff.  Soaring. “I am.”
“Go on, then.”
“I was in love with you and was too stubborn to admit it.”
“You haven’t run out of money, have you?”
“Not a bit.”
“You might have told me, you know. When you realized you loved me.”
“Did none of my letters reach you?”
“I didn’t read them. Why would I?” In fact, she had burned every single one. Tossed them into the fire with vicious joy. “I don’t correspond with gentlemen who break my heart.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” With each word, his head came closer, his mouth came closer to hers. Her legs went weak again. Here she stood on solid ground and she felt herself at the ledge again with a shiver of excitement turning the backs of her knees to air. He said, “But I’m not sorry I love you.”
Finney coughed.
“Yes, St. Aubyn.” She put her hands on his cheeks. “Yes. I’ll marry you.”
“Even if my house has burned to the ground?”
“Even if.”
He gave her the sort of slow smile that had always stopped her breath even when it wasn’t directed at her. And now? She could scarcely breathe. “Do you know,” he said. “There’s just nothing I love more than a good Christmas fire.”

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