Maid Under the Mistletoe – Annabelle Anders

You’ve never looked lovelier, Miss Fairchild. Your eyes sparkle like the winter sky. Your lips glisten like the ripest of berries. The shine in your hair surely must rival all the Regent’s gold.” The Honorable Miss Fairchild tittered into her handkerchief, but a gurgling noise escaped from the diminutive maid walking behind them. Anthony Crespin, Earl of Mapleton, furrowed his brows as he turned his attention to his future betrothed’s companion. Had Miss Fairchild’s maid just rolled her eyes? He was not mistaken. She met his backwards glance with a shrug, as though to say, Is that the best you can do? “But what of my dress, my lord?” Miss Fairchild demanded his attention once again. “And my complexion?” This time, there was no mistaking the barking noise that quickly turned into a cough. “Is something ailing you, Charlotte?” Miss Fairchild scowled in her direction. “I do hope you aren’t coming down with something. With Christmas just a few days away that would be most inconvenient.” Large eyes, with nearly as many flecks of green as blue, widened in innocence. “A ladybug landed on my nose. Ticklish little creature.

” The maid swiped at a most impertinent appendage. Upturned and defiant but smallish, much like its owner. Ladybug? In late December? “Hrmph.” The genteel lady beside him studied her maid suspiciously. “You’ll do well to control yourself in the future.” Anthony had not noticed the shrillness of Miss Fairchild’s voice before. He tugged at his cravat, which suddenly seemed tighter than it had when he’d left Maplehurst that morning. Mindful of his manners, he offered his arm to Miss Fairchild once again. The match between himself and Viscount Denton’s eldest daughter may have been a trifle rushed, but now he had nothing left to do but actually offer for the gel. Anthony had inherited his father’s title, that of Earl of Mapleton, just over five years ago.

Having recently achieved the ancient age of thirty, he’d decided the time had come to take a wife and set up a nursery. As expected, it was what gentlemen did. He’d originally allowed himself two to three years to view the field of eligible debutantes, but the need became urgent when two thirds of the structures within the local village burned to the ground. And Lord Denton’s estate in Hampshire conveniently bordered his own to the north. The substantial dowry, although not outlandish, would cover the cost of recovering for the fire at Bridge’s End. He’d known of the honorable Miss Fairchild for some time. The family had good connections. She maintained a spotless reputation and was not too horrible to look at. In fact, he’d managed to note that she could be rather pretty, really, when complimented and admired. Clutching his arm possessively, Miss Fairchild leaned into him.

“The sky appears as though it might snow this afternoon.” Anthony glanced upward. Not a cloud in sight. The lady was simply making conversation and so he nodded in agreement. By Christmas, he’d be a betrothed man. He tugged at his cravat again. When had Penrose begun knotting it so tightly? He’d have to have a word with his valet… Hearing more muffled laughter, he glanced over his shoulder at the maid. And again, she flashed those innocent eyes. Despite covering her hair with a simple mop cap, and wearing a frumpy grey gown, the petite young woman stirred him uncomfortably. He determinedly faced forward and frowned.

Such insubordination was quite extraordinary. He ought to be angry on behalf of Miss Fairchild. He ought to admonish the maid himself. “And are you hoping for snow on Christmas this year?” He asked the young lady beside him. He drew in a deep breath, expecting to inhale a sweet feminine fragrance, but instead was forced to stifle his own choking sounds. Had Miss Fairchild bathed in her perfume this morning? The cloying scent of roses hung onto his senses as tightly as the wearer gripped his arm. “Of course not, my lord! If it snows, our guests might have difficulty travelling to the Christmas Ball.” She paused meaningfully. “And they might miss the announcement.” Damn, but the temperature had risen since they’d stepped outside ten minutes ago.

He could not remember the last time it had been so warm around the holidays. She had the right of it, for certain. He fully intended for her father to make the announcement at the Christmas Ball. Miss Fairchild’s parents, Lord and Lady Denton, were hosting several people for the holidays. Lofty guests who all had high expectations for Miss Fairchild. He was saved from making any comment when approaching voices carried along the garden path. He recognized Mr. and Mrs. Smythe, one of Miss Fairchild’s married cousins and her husband, and Lord and Lady Pritchard. His own younger brother and sister walked with them as well.

Likely, Daphne was doing her best to allow him some privacy with Miss Fairchild. His younger sister was all too aware of his responsibilities and whenever possible, did what she could to assist him in meeting them. She could be as annoying at times, as she could be sweet. Michael was all of seven and twenty, still enjoying the exploits of young bachelorhood, and Daphne was only five years younger than Michael. Their mother remained at home, abed. She’d not come out of her bedchamber since their father’s passing. Miss Fairchild released his arm in order to join them, leaving Anthony standing alone with her maid. Was this what marriage to her would be like? “More like lapis, after it has dried and been ground up.” The small woman beside him offered with a smirk. “Excuse me?” Maids did not have discussions with their mistress’s escorts.

“A more apt description for her eyes.” She grinned. “Although the flower is a brilliant color while alive, the vivid hue is lost shorty after it’s picked.” At his frown, she elaborated. “Not at all like a bright winter sky.” Again, that sensation that he would like to reprimand this defiant servant… if only he did not find a part of himself agreeing with her. She was correct about both, he conceded, recalling the plant to which she referred, and how disappointed one became as it dried out. “You oughtn’t.” He uttered instead. She sighed heavily and he could not help to notice how the rise and fall of her breasts topped off what he guessed must be a perfect hourglass figure.

He pulled his gaze back to her face quickly. A gentleman did not ogle his intended’s maid. “Oh, believe me, I know.” She sighed again and watched Miss Fairchild fawn over the other guests. “It’s just too easy sometimes.” He studied her skeptically. He did not remember seeing her with Miss Fairchild before. In fact, he remembered quite distinctly that a heavy-set woman had accompanied them on their last outing. “Have you only recently entered service?” Oddly enough, he didn’t want the girl to bring trouble upon herself. But for the luck of birth, his own sister might have fallen into such a position.

She grimaced as she met his stare. “This is my fourth position.” He raised his brows. “In three months.” Ahh… Well, he could not feign surprise. CHARLOTTE DRAKE KNEW she was treading on thin ice again. Not only by pointing out that her mistress’s eyes resembled a faded flower, but by addressing Lord Mapleton in the first place. Oliver would throttle her if she got sacked again. As it was, her brother and his wife, Betsy, barely had enough room to accommodate their own family. They certainly didn’t have additional provisions to care for her.

She would never forget her brother’s horrified expression when she’d shown up on his doorstep thirteen weeks ago. They’d expected she would dwell with father for another decade or two, possibly three, at the vicarage. Not one person could have predicted his untimely death. He’d only been fifty-three, for heaven’s sake! It was circumstances such as these that had Charlotte questioning God’s judgment at times. Especially his taking her mother’s life upon her own birth. Dismissing the painful thought, her mind wandered. She should have married Jonathan Birch when he’d offered four years ago. Surely being a wife could not have been worse than catering to the demands of Miss Susan Fairchild. She shrugged off her musings, all too aware that Lord Mapleton watched her warily. “Are you going to make and offer then?” Charlotte could not help but ask.

It was all Lady Denton and Miss Fairchild had been talking about since Charlotte took up her post this week. Again, Lord Mapleton raised his brows at her words. She eyed their fullness, the dark brown color, and their finely shaped appearance. Just beneath the tall hat perched atop his person, dark blond hairs framed his perfectly sized head. As far as gentlemen went, he really was one of the finer looking ones. Miss Fairchild could do much worse, that was for certain. Any of the husbands of her former employers caused Lord Mapleton to shine in comparison. And not just in looks, either. In character… She had a sense about such things. She’d sensed that Mr.

Merkle was trouble at the onset of that particular post. A tremor of disgust ran through her at the memory of her last employer’s hands ‘accidentally’ brushing across the tops of her breasts. And Mrs. Merkle had shown no sympathy whatsoever. In fact, she’d blamed Charlotte for her husband’s nefarious behavior. “Did you seriously take it upon yourself to ask me if I was going to propose to your mistress, Miss…?” “Drake.” She supplied, holding out her hand. “Charlotte Drake.” Again, with those eyebrows of his. But oh, dear.

The nearby group silenced as they stared back at them. Of course, a servant did not offer her hand to a lord! Class distinction. Class differences. She’d experienced it all of her life, with her father’s parishioners. How different it was to now endure the subtle and not so subtle differences from an even less advantageous perspective. She dropped her hand and began reaching into the pockets of her coat. “I had one somewhere, my lord.” She spoke in her most obsequious voice while withdrawing a handkerchief. She handed it to Lord Mapleton who then slowly took it. Although he looked startled, he stuffed it into his pocket without contradicting her.

Ah, she’d known he must be something of a good person. “Thank you, Miss Drake.” And then he bowed. What was he doing?

.

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