A Yuletide Invitation. Christine Merrill
The Mistletoe Wager
The Harlot’s Daughter
MILLS & BOON
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About the Author
CHRISTINE MERRILL lives on a farm in Wisconsin, USA, with her husband, two sons, and too many pets – all of whom would like her to get off the computer so they can check their e-mail. She has worked by turns in theatre costuming, where she was paid to play with period ballgowns, and as a librarian, where she spent the day surrounded by books. Writing historical romance combines her love of good stories and fancy dress with her ability to stare out of the window and make stuff up.
When I set out to write about Christmas in the Regency, I had to unlearn a lot of our current Christmas traditions. Much of what we do now to celebrate the season did not become popular until Victorian times. No Christmas cards or Santa, of course. And Christmas trees were still quite a novelty in the early nineteenth century.
With no television or radio to entertain them, people passed the time eating and drinking holiday foods, and playing parlour games. As I was doing the research for this story, I came across a game which didn’t make it into this book. A player must answer every question asked of him with the word “Sausage.” When he laughs, he loses his turn.
A week later, my sons returned from summer camp. They had been surviving without electricity for a week and had learned to play “Sausage” to pass the time.
So although the showier aspects of the Christmas season were years away, people had already found ways to amuse themselves that are still able to tame bored teenagers in the twenty-first century. Very impressive!
Merry Christmas and happy reading,
To Jim and the boys. Christmas comes but once
a year. But it lasts twelve months.
HARRY PENNYNGTON, Earl of Anneslea, passed his hat and gloves to the servant at White’s, squared his shoulders, and strode into the main room to face his enemy. Nicholas Tremaine was lounging in a chair by the fire, exuding confidence and unconcerned by his lesser birth. To see him was to believe he was master of his surroundings, whatever they might be. He reminded Harry of a panther dozing on a tree branch, ready to drop without warning into the lives of other creatures and wreak havoc on their nerves.
And he was a handsome panther at that. In comparison, Harry always felt that he was inferior in some way. Shorter, perhaps, although they were much of the same height and build. And rumpled. For, no matter how much time or money Harry spent on his attire, Tremaine would always be more fashionable. And he did it seemingly without effort.
On the long list of things that annoyed him about the man, his appearance was at the bottom. But it was on the list all the same.
The room was nearly empty, but Harry could feel the shift in attention among the few others present as though there had been a change in the wind. Men looked up from their cards and reading, watching his progress towards Tremaine. They were curious to see what would happen when the two notorious rivals met.
Very well, then. He would give them the show they hoped for. ‘Tremaine!’ He said it too loudly and with much good cheer.
His quarry gave a start and almost spilled his brandy. He had recognised the voice at once, and his eyes darted around the room, seeking escape. But none was to be had, for Harry stood between him and the door. Harry could see the faint light of irritation in the other man’s eyes when he realised that he would have no choice but to acknowledge the greeting. ‘Hello, Anneslea.’ Then he returned his gaze to the paper he had been reading, showing no desire for further conversation.
How unfortunate for him. ‘How goes it for you, old man, in this most blessed of holiday seasons?’
The only response was a nod, followed by a vague grunt that could have indicated satisfaction or annoyance.
Harry smiled and took a chair opposite the fire, facing Tremaine. He took a sip from the brandy that a servant had rushed to bring him. He examined the liquid in the glass, holding it out to catch the firelight. ‘A good drink warms the blood on a day like this. There is a chill in the air. I’ve been tramping up and down Bond Street all morning. Shopping for Christmas gifts. Tailors, jewellers, whatnot. And the fixings for the celebration, of course. What’s not to be had in the country must be brought back with me from town.’ He waved his hand at the foolishness of it. ‘I do not normally take it upon myself. But now that I am alone …’ He could almost feel the ears of the others in the room, pricking to catch what he would say next.
Tremaine noticed as well, and gave a small flinch. It was most gratifying.
Harry looked up from his drink into Tremaine’s startled face. ‘And, by the by, how is Elise?’ It was a bold conversational gambit, and he was rewarded with a slight choke from his opponent.
The other man turned to him and sat up straight, his indolence disappearing. His eyes glittered with suppressed rage. ‘She is well, I think. If you care, you should go and ask her yourself. She would be glad of the call.’
She would be no such thing. As he remembered their last conversation, Elise had made it plain that if she never saw Harry again it would be too soon. ‘Perhaps I will,’ he answered, and smiled as though they were having a pleasant discussion about an old friend and nothing more.
It must have disappointed their audience to see the two men behaving as adults on this most delicate of subjects. But their moderate behaviour had not quelled the undercurrent of anticipation. He could see from the corner of his eye that the room had begun to fill with observers. They were reading newspapers, engaging in subdued chat, and gazing out of the bay window while sipping drinks. But every man present was taking care to be uninterested in a most focused fashion, waiting for the cross word that would set the two of them to brawling like schoolboys.
If only it were so easily settled. If Harry could have been sure of a win, he would have met his opponent on the field of honour long before now. The temptation existed to hand his jacket to the nearest servant, roll up his sleeves, raise his fists and lay the bastard out on the hearth rug. But physically, they were evenly matched. A fight would impress no one, should he lose it. And Elise would think even less of him than she did now if he was bested in public by Nicholas Tremaine.
He would have to strike where his rival could least defend himself. In the intellect.