His Minx of a Countess – Scarlett Osborne

The handsomely dressed crowd of girls danced gaily around the Christmastide table that boasted an array of delectable festive fancies as they sang at Whitehall Manor. Their giddy yet elegant laughter danced around the room as they did. Their fine, swirling dress skirts rotated over the marble floor. “Two Sticks and Apple, Ring ye Bells at Whitechapple, Old Father Bald Pate, Ring ye Bells Aldgate, Maids in White Aprons, Ring ye Bells a St. Catherines, Oranges and Lemmons, Ring ye bells at St. Clemens, When will you pay me, Ring ye Bells at ye Old Bailey, When I am Rich, Ring ye Bells at Fleetditch, When will that be, Ring ye Bells at Stepney, When I am Old, Ring ye Bells at Paul’s!” Every Christmas season, Whitehall Manor delivered the most wonderful of parties, attracting a shimmering array of noble invitees. Lydia Agar watched the joviality unfold as the sweet, smoky smell of the crackling Yule log filled the parlor room as the flames devoured it in the ornate hearth. Usually, Lydia would join in the festivities, but this year, her circumstances rendered her unwilling to move from the safety of her quiet corner. She felt content to admire the flutter of hair ribbons and swirl of long dresses as their noble wearers danced and delighted, accompanied by the sticky-sweet aroma of earthy pine sap and the moreish scent of fresh plum pudding that drifted from the buffet table. “Well, if it isn’t Lady Lydia Agar…” a deep, velvet voice ejected from her unsuspecting left-hand side, causing her to jump as she was roused from her peaceful observations. She turned with haste to see an unexpected, familiar face. “Charles Dowding, I am but dreaming! That cannot possibly be you standing before me!” Lydia gasped as she addressed the handsome Earl, whom she had not laid eyes upon for many years. Although, she did not remember him being this handsome. Many moons had passed since their emotional farewell, and he had become quite the man, with long brown hair slicked back to reveal a pair of dark brown eyes and an aquiline nose. He looked like he had stepped right out of a Grecian carving.

Lydia felt her heart begin to flutter but blamed that on too many helpings of the Wassail Bowl. “If you think you are dreaming, let me pinch you awake,” Charles teased, motioning his hand playfully toward her left arm, miming nipping her. She laughed and slapped his hand away impishly She felt like a child again in his pleasant company. “What brings you back to London, Charles? Or, I suppose I should call you My Lord… It’s been years!” Lydia said, renewed with a vigor and excitement that she had not worn for many weeks, not since her parents had delivered the unwanted news that rendered her so solemn at this year’s ball. “Oh no, you must call me Charles, for you are still my dear friend after all of this time, Lady Lydia. Father finally emancipated me from my duties in the Far East; it seems he requires help with his business. So here I am. I have moved back into Wintervale Manor.” Wintervale. Just the mention of the name flooded Lydia’s mind with charming memories of their childhood friendship, where they had played on the rocky moorlands until dark, studying all manner of flora and fauna, and had filled many joyous hours reading books from the Earl’s magnificent collection of world literature.

She had almost forgotten the sweetheart that Charles had been to her for all of those years and that, when she was just fifteen years old, they had promised to marry one another when they were grown. That was ten years ago and had faded into one pleasant reminiscent dream-scape in Lydia’s mind. “Then you must call me Lydia. For as children, we were never concerned with the airs and graces. What wonderful news. I suppose you’re frightfully cold?” Lydia laughed, attempting to conceal her growing attraction to her reunited childhood sweetheart. “Perishing. I have three pairs of long johns underneath my shirt,” he sassed. Charles still possessed the power to make Lydia silly with laughter; her button nose creased with girlish laughter as she crumpled into a much smaller shape than her already petite frame and giggled into her hands, her glossy brown hair shaking over her rosy face. Lydia composed herself and familiarized herself with the shirt that he had just mentioned.

He was dressed most finely in an embroidered cotton undercoat and deep blue waistcoat that accentuated his deep, chestnut eyes. A pair of high-waisted black trousers and matching boots made him look most put-together, and much unlike the rugged and mischievous child she had once known. Additionally, Lydia could not help but notice that his body was changed; it seemed his time in the Far East had blessed him with the most captivating golden tan and had developed his physique to a most masculine form. His shoulders were wide and his hips were narrow, creating a pleasing V-shape that complimented his tall stature. Lydia’s eyes flirted with his physique shamefully. Lydia’s mind rushed back to her dismay at fifteen, when news that Charles’s father, the Earl of Wintervale, had sent his eighteen-year-old son away on account of his unruly behavior. She did not blame Charles for his acting out, for his Father had never been present; the Earl was scarcely seen at Wintervale Manor on account of his business and Charles did have a substantial Father figure to guide him. This of course, gave Lydia and Charles free rein of the Manor with his easy-going mother and the plethora of childadoring staff. They were scarcely disciplined as they stormed the corridors and explored the many handsome levels of the magnificent mansion. “Oh, what fun we used to have, Charles.

I suppose there is much to catch up on.” Lydia removed herself from reminiscing, addressing her old friend with warmth, for his surprising arrival had made her evening. “Indeed. Why don’t you join me on my mission to the Wassail Bowl? The spiced concoction is calling to me like a siren to a sailor, and I am rather thirsty from all this chatter. I am not used to speaking much, most of my friends were not versed in English, and I fear my brain has decayed during my late years. I might bore you to death now,” Charles replied with a strange fusion of jest and earnest. Lydia doubted that he could bore her. She was most delighted to gaze at his handsomeness and hear his stories; it served as a welcome distraction from her own misery. Charles seemed to retain the same sparkle in his eye that captivated Lydia throughout their youth. However, something seemed to weigh upon him.

His eyes seemed deeper and heavier, making him seem so much more mysterious than the impish, chestnut-eyed boy that she once knew. She wanted to know more about him. As the pretty pair leisured over to the giant silver bowl that held a huge measure of mulled cider, they discussed a myriad of things that their years apart had denied them. “How are your darling parents, His and Her Grace of Tidewell, Lydia? I do hope that they have joined you at the Christmas Ball,” Charles chimed as he poured himself a generous measure of mulled cider from the embossed silver ladle, not forgetting to top up Lydia’s glass as well. “Of course. They are over by the fireplace with little Lilly and Rupert; you know how they love children. They don’t often see my cousins,” Lydia replied, pointing to the glowing hearth across the huge marble hall where the distant figures of her parents could be seen delighting in the company of the small people. Charles’s attention was called to the increasing volume and frivolity of the group of dancing guests that had now coupled up with partners to rejoice in a festive country dance. Silky dress skirts twirled around and created a dazzling array of domes across the dance floor, and the tap of gentlemen’s boots rung across the Parlor. Charles asked Lydia to join them with his eyes alone, giving her a suggestive smirk that she knew so well.

Lydia nodded and they placed their fresh drinks down on the table, joining hands to dance together in their reunion. Lydia and Charles smiled as they began their dancefloor flirtation, their warm hands clasped together for the first time in ten years as they shyly grinned. Lydia’s heart started to flutter as they sailed across the marble floor, eyes locked together. She let herself study his deep, oaky-brown eyes that addressed her directly as they flowed in harmony. He was so much more handsome than she remembered; his tan was so alien to her, for the smog of London scarcely allowed the skin to brown. Charles now seemed strange, forbidden, and exotic, and the pressure of his hand upon her waist made her feel dizzy. “Have you not blessed your parents with any children of your own yet?” Charles’s deep eyes seemed to quiz Lydia about the years he had missed as they traversed the hall, feeling safely camouflaged by the other couples. “No,” she replied, her joy suddenly blunted. An uncomfortable pause of silence ensued. Charles danced for a few moments, abiding her sudden furtiveness, but it was not long before he cut through the silence with an awkward cough and a welcome statement.

“Well, I will have you know that I remain a bachelor as ever.” Lydia felt guilty for feeling relieved that Charles had not married overseas, for she could not help but feel jealous at the thought of her childhood sweetheart infatuated with someone distant and exotic. She knew that she had no right to feel this way; their romance had to end when he was shipped against his will to the far reaches of Asia. Still, Lydia did feel overwhelmed by how handsomely her childhood love had matured and by how she still felt something for him after those long years apart. Suddenly, Lydia felt the queerest sensation run through her. It felt as though she was being watched in the busy, dancing crowd; something strange and unknown made her blood run cold for a moment as she looked around the Parlor frantically. “Are you alright? You look as though you are searching for someone,” Charles enquired with sympathetic brown eyes. Feeling silly, Lydia shook off her strange sense. “Oh, yes. I’m quite well.

I just felt a sense of something queer.” “Thank goodness. I thought you may be so distressed with my dancing skills that you were calling for aid,” Charles scoffed. Lydia giggled, fighting the unsettling tugging sensation that sat at the bottom of her gut that called her to look around for its source. It was as though a ghost was looming over her. They finished their short dance in silence and then walked back to reclaim their glasses. Lydia was confused by the fusion of breathless excitement that dancing with Charles had cast over her, combined with the discomfort of revealing her life to him. She was still haunted by the strange sense of foreboding that had gripped her during the dance, but decided to forget it for want of a good evening. Lydia and Charles enjoyed each other’s company as they walked away from the refreshment table. Charles had helped himself to a portion of cold cut turkey and cranberry sauce on a china plate, as he had arrived from a long journey and his stomach was growling with a travel-weary hunger.

“I wonder how many of my friends have changed their second name since we parted all of those years ago?” he mused. It was clear that he was trying to ascertain whether she remained unclaimed but was skirting around it with poetic allegory whilst he chewed on the choice morsels. Lydia noticed how refined Charles had become as he ate neatly, as opposed to stuffing his face the way he used to when they were young. “Percy was married a few weeks ago, to little Agnes who used to chase the pheasants on the family hunting days. Rebecca and Anne were both married at the start of the winter, with the quaintest snowy and decadent weddings. It is a shame that you missed it,” she went on, distracting herself from the way Charles’s lips moved slowly as he ate; she was starting to wish that it was her neck he would nibble on. She was also trying to avoid discussing her own bitter betrothal. Charles sensed Lydia’s trepidation and withdrawal. “What of yourself, Lydia?” Charles made it impossible for her to avoid disclosing her own situation. “I am not married… yet,” she replied, her eyes drawn downwards, seeming suddenly interested in her lilac ballgown.

“Who is the lucky fellow? You must tell me!” Charles persisted.

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