2015 Free Christmas Read
When Dani from Ramblings from This Chick assigned me my topic for her annual historical writers’ event, I admit I was a little hesitant. Most of my stories are humorous historicals, with no bloodshed involved. Dueling pistols? Swords? Fruitcake at fifty paces? I hope you’ll like the weapon I chose.
This original scene stars three old friends, and the young woman they all love. Enjoy! And have the happiest of holidays!
December 24, 1820
The Long Gallery was pitch-dark, but that wasn’t going to stop him. One way or another, Antony Howe was going to win.
Once, Bastian had been his best friend. They had been sent down from Oxford together and enjoyed all the prerequisites of young bucks on the town. They were carefree. Convivial. Unencumbered by the constraints of society.
Tony’s aim was as good as the next man’s—he’d been practicing since his school days. With a sufficient brace of candles to illuminate the room and his acute eyesight, he was prepared to target his enemy and vanquish him here tonight.
There would be a mess, of course, but that’s what servants were for.
He supposed his rage wasn’t appropriate for the Christmas season, but he was sick of Bastian and all he stood for now. He’d been a boon companion, but since he’d inherited, a stick was rammed so firmly up his—
Well, he shouldn’t be vulgar. Lily didn’t like it. But there was no question the man needed a comeuppance, and Tony was just the man to give it to him.
And then, Lily would be his, even if he had to flee the country with her.
Lord Sebastian Markham took his duty to his family seriously. Now that he was a newly-minted viscount, his sister Lily’s future and well-being were entrusted to his care. To think that Tony, idiot Tony, thought he deserved to even kiss his baby sister’s fingertips was an abomination. Bastian had known Tony since they were both in leading-strings, and he wouldn’t give the kitchen cat to him. He was fine as a friend, someone to go out drinking and gambling and whoring with, but as a brother-in-law?
Absolutely, positively not.
And anyway, the drinking and the gambling and the whoring had come to a complete stop. The Markham estate was in tatters, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie Wentworth’s sage advice, Bastian might be in the Fleet right now.
“Do you have the weapons?” Bastian asked his valet.
The man nodded. “Are you quite sure you want to do this, my lord? It’s Christmas Eve.”
“No matter what day or night it is, it must be done.”
“Couldn’t you just ask Mr. Howe to leave?”
“That would be too simple. I want him wounded. Neutralized. The cheek of him to offer for Lily!”
“Indeed, my lord. Whatever you say, my lord,” the valet said, crossing his fingers behind his back.
Five minutes later, a rap at the door interrupted Lily’s nightly hairbrushing. She was proud of her hair, a spun-gold mass that seemed to fascinate a certain gentleman. Lily smiled, thinking of that man.
He was…perfect. She’d known him forever, but he’d never been more than brotherly toward her until her come-out last spring. And then, so slowly, so casually, he’d made her fall in love with him.
It wasn’t because he was the handsomest of Bastian’s friends, for he wasn’t. But he was steady and solid and Lily knew she’d never have to worry again. There had been a lot of worrying, what with their grandfather and guardian dying this summer and poor Bastian inheriting. The estate had been left in a bit of a mess, though Bastian told her things were improving.
Thanks to Lily’s gentleman. And when that gentleman looked at her, really looked at her with his smoldering dark eyes, Lily’s stomach did a little flip and something odd happened to her insides.
Bastian’s valet stood in the doorway, blushing and averting his face from Lily’s unbound hair and frilly dressing gown.
“I think you should come to the Long Gallery, Miss Lily,” he said to the lamp. “Your brother and Mr. Howe are about to fight a duel, and I think under the conditions—”
“What?” Lily shrieked. She dropped her hairbrush and ran barefoot down the stairs, barreling straight into Charlie on the landing. Mr. Charles Christopher John Wentworth, heir to the Marquess of Rushton. She’d written his name forty-seven times in her diary tonight until her hand cramped. He stopped her from toppling over the banister and held her for perhaps a moment too long.
“Lily, my dear, what is wrong?”
“It’s Bastian and Tony,” she said breathlessly. “They’re going to kill each other!”
“But they’re dueling!”
His lips quirked. “Are they?”
She pounded a small fist on his chest. Under ordinary circumstances, she liked looking at his smiling mouth very much. Liked kissing it too, although Charlie had been too honorable and somewhat stingy with his kisses, treating her as if she was made out of fine china.
She wasn’t. And she was looking forward to proving that on her wedding night.
“How can you think this amusing, Charlie? Oh, what if we’re too late? It’s Christmas! They can’t kill each other at Christmas—it will ruin the holiday for everyone.”
“Horrors. No fruitcake or figgy pudding. Nothing but funeral meats. We will stop them, never fear. I knew I should have spoken to Bastian first.”
Lily shook her head. “I’m not some mare to be negotiated over at Tattersall’s. I’m glad you spoke to me first!” She was the one to be married, after all. Lily touched the diamond ring which hung on a silver chain around her neck. Charlie had given it to her this afternoon beneath the mistletoe.
The engagement was secret, only until Charlie had the chance to make his case to her brother tomorrow after church and before Christmas lunch. Bastian couldn’t possibly refuse. Charlie was…perfect.
“Where is this duel?”
“The Long Gallery.” She wrenched herself out of Charlie’s arms and dashed down a dim hallway, Charlie right behind her.
They entered the middle of the room which was ablaze with candelabrum and lit sconces. Centuries of Markhams looked gloomily on the proceedings from the walls. Standing at one end was Bastian, wearing a fierce scowl aimed at his oldest friend Tony Howe. Tony glared back, until he caught sight of Lily.
“Charlie, this is no place for a young lady. Take her away,” he growled.
Bastian turned. “Lily! What are you doing here?”
“I live here. And I’ve come to stop you from making fools of yourselves.”
“Too late,” Charlie murmured. “I see you boys are up to your old tricks. What are the stakes?”
Lily gasped. “They’ve done this before?”
“Oh, yes. I have, too.” Charlie walked over, picked up a roll from the basket by Bastian’s feet and lobbed it across the room. Tony ducked, and the roll splattered against the fireplace screen, showering crumbs on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Lily cried.
“Dueling with dinner rolls. Doesn’t everybody?”
“R-rolls?” Lily stuttered. They were throwing bread at one another? She’d nearly had an apoplexy running down here thinking she’d find bloodied and broken bodies on the carpet.
“Did you think they’d use pistols, my love? Even they are not such half-wits.”
Bastian bristled. “I’ll have you know…wait a second. What is this ‘my love’ business?”
“Your sister agreed to make me the happiest of men today, Bastian. Forgive me for not asking your permission.”
“You want to marry Lily?” Tony sounded dumbfounded.
“It’s not as if I am such an ugly old crone, Tony,” Lily snapped. “Some people appreciate me.” Tony had behaved very oddly lately, tripping over his feet and tongue every time she was in a room with him, as if she was a two-headed stranger.
“You had better not have ‘appreciated’ her too much, Wentworth,” her brother said, arming himself with a roll.
“Don’t be silly. Charlie has been a perfect gentleman. Just…perfect.”
“Aargh.” Tony collapsed on a chair, his hands over his ears.
“Sorry, old friend,” Charlie shouted. He must be hoping to break through the barrier. But why he should be sorry was a mystery to Lily. He hadn’t come close to hitting Tony with that roll.
She took one from the basket and contemplated throwing it at one of the young men who had caused her such consternation of Christmas Eve, a night of peace and joy. Instead, she took a bite, wishing she had some butter. She’d been much too excited to taste anything tonight at dinner.
Charlie loved her! It was the best Christmas present in the world.