Merry Misrule – Ellie St. Clair

“You said he wouldn’t be here.” “I did.” Caroline cringed. “And I really didn’t think he would be… but he surprised us all. Mother was astonished.” Joanna nodded, attempting to keep her expression neutral. She knew she should be happy for her friend and pleased for her entire family. Lord Elijah had been gone for over two years now, and they had all rejoiced at his early return from the war. All but Joanna. In fact, the only reason she was here was because she had been assured that Caroline’s brother was still away. For after the last time she had attended such a Christmas party at Briercrest, she had vowed to never be in his company again. She eyed him suspiciously now from across the drawing room, where he sat in a giltwood Hepplewhite armchair, his eyes dark and heavy lidded, but she wasn’t tricked by his nonchalant pose. He had a smoke in one hand, a drink in the other, a smug smile on his face. Typical, she thought with a snort, turning around to find her friend looking at her with both pity and apprehension. “I know he wasn’t the… nicest to you, Jo, and I have apologized more times than I can count.

But he’s really not a bad sort.” Caroline stared at her imploringly, as though she was hopeful that Joanna might change her mind. She was not to be appeased. Joanna raised her eyebrows. “Caro, because of him I refused to come visit your house for five years. Because of him I lost my most cherished possession left to me by my grandmother. Because of him, I came to dread Christmas.” “I know, Jo, I do,” Caroline said, placing a hand on Joanna’s arm as she cast her eyes downward. “I’ll make him promise to behave himself.” “Because he always listens to you?” Joanna said wryly, knowing she wasn’t being fair to her friend, but unable to stop herself.

“You make a point.” Caroline sighed, running a hand over her hair, the same sinfully sweet chocolate as her brother’s. “I promise to do my very best, however.” Joanna sighed, attempting a smile, but nearly failing, as she couldn’t help but allow her gaze to wander across the expanse of crimson and gold Wilton carpet once more. The worst of it all was that Lord Elijah Kentmore was just as handsome now, if not more so, than he ever was. Five years had aged him to near perfection. His skin had a touch of tan, passed down from an African grandmother, his hair dark with curls that had always made her wonder whether or not they would wrap perfectly around her finger. She wished she didn’t know that his eyes were a beautiful shade of brown, with a navy circle around the outer edges. But she did. She knew it all.

And she hated him for how perfect his cheekbones were, how chiseled his jaw, how sensuous his lips that were always curled into that smile that beckoned, telling her that if she were to ever tempt herself with his sweetness, he would show pleasure of the highest order. But that was exactly what had brought about her downfall years past. She was older now, more knowledgeable, and aware of just how he used his charms of seduction for mischief. She would not be fooled again. Just then, he turned, catching her eye, noticing her stare, and she jumped in shock, quickly snapping her gaze away to rest upon the flicker of the candlesticks over the fireplace before berating herself for her cowardice. Why should she be ashamed for staring? Everyone else was. She had good reason to. She held her chin high as she turned her face back toward him proudly, as though she had nothing to hide. And then he winked at her. Joanna’s chin dropped open in shock at the action for just a moment, but when he smiled smugly she promptly lifted it once more before turning away, now frantically searching for an escape.

Seeing no conversation she had any wish to join, she decided instead that now would be a good time to give herself a tour of some of the front rooms of the house, to see what, if anything, had changed since her last visit to Briercrest Manor. The skirts of her red silk drop-front gown, still one of her favorites and yet sadly a few years out of date, swished as she walked swiftly down the corridor, away from the drawing room that held tonight’s musical entertainment. The door of the library was cracked just a bit, and she pushed it open and stepped through, finding the room inviting with its warm fire blazing, the steady, solid bookshelves stacked from floor to ceiling, filled with the finest of tomes. She longed for a library like this, one which required a ladder to reach to the very highest shelf. But at the moment, she was just lucky to be able to make it to the circulation library and borrow a single title. The room was the same. Everything in the house was the same, it seemed, except her. She was the one who had changed. She sighed and turned to leave the room, but upon reaching the doorway, she came to an abrupt halt. For there, blocking her exit, was the very man she was attempting to escape.

* * * “Well, well, what — or should I say who — do we have here?” Eli wasn’t entirely sure who this woman was, but his sister had only a few close friends and was not prone to making new ones. He had seen Caroline conversing with her, and was instantly captivated by the woman, her striking features catching his eye from where he sat scanning the room from his corner. He was attempting nonchalance, but the truth was, he felt much safer in the corner — where he could pretend to be the man he once was and not who he had become. He had left England as Elijah Kentmore, charmer, schemer, practical joker. The war had turned him into someone else entirely — someone, he was sure, this room of revelers were not yet ready to meet. He found drinking a few cups of his father’s fine port helped bring back his former self, removing the layers that had been added through his years at war. He hadn’t tried using women yet to do so, but he figured this one would do as good as any for experimentation. She, however, did not seem entirely convinced. “Did you follow me?” she asked, her green eyes turning stormy, but he enjoyed the fire emanating from them, even if it was an angry fire and not an amorous one. “Would you like me to say yes?” he asked, flashing her a grin, but she was unmoved.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said, her mouth set into a grim line — a mouth of pretty pink lips that he would love to taste. “Do you know where you’re standing?” He quirked an eyebrow, a look that always worked with women — but it seemed this one was immune to his charms. “In the doorway of the library,” she said, unimpressed. “And underneath the mistletoe.” “I am not,” she said stonily, but then, after twitching a couple of times as she seemed to attempt to rein in control, she couldn’t help herself. She looked up. If her countenance could have grown grimmer, then it did. She crossed her arms over her chest, squeezing the bodice of her gown — and her perfectly formed breasts — closer together. Eli tried not to look. But he wasn’t that good of a man.

His head dropped. So did her lips. He had never seen a frown so somber, and he yearned to turn it upside down. He leaned in closer to her. She leaned back. He stepped inside the door. She stepped back. “It doesn’t seem as if we are standing under the mistletoe any longer,” she said. “And in fact, it could be argued that it was you who was doing so — not I. Now if you’ll excuse me—” “Who are you?” He couldn’t help himself.

He needed to know. She stared up at him, her brows lifting and her eyes widening before she peered closer at his face, pausing for a beat. “You’re serious.” “How could such a question be asked in jest?” Her lips parted in surprise. “You don’t know who I am.” Why did she say it like a statement instead of a question? He searched her face. Should he know her? He supposed there was something familiar about her — but he couldn’t quite place her. “Err—” “Unbelievable.” She snorted, shaking her head. “My apologies,” he said, doing his best to show how contrite he really was, “but since this is a new acquaintance for one of us, perhaps we should start off on a right note.

” He picked up her gloved hand, raising it, pressing his lips to it before she wrenched it away. “Lord Elijah Kentmore.” “I don’t think—” He swiftly stepped toward her, wrapping an arm around her back and dipping his head to kiss her before she could protest any further — they were below the mistletoe, after all — but before his lips touched hers, she ducked underneath his arm and was on the opposite side of him. “What do you think you are doing?” she asked, two splotches of red appearing on her cheeks. He wished they were from desire, but he came to the unfortunate conclusion that they were most likely caused by anger. He scratched his head. “Well, we were underneath the mistletoe, and—” She lifted a hand, and he flinched, for a moment anticipating a slap, but instead she held her finger in the air in admonishment. “If you ever— and I mean ever— attempt to kiss me again, especially without my permission, then you will regret ever coming home. Do you understand me?” She was rigid, practically shaking with fury, and Eli finally realized that whatever notion this woman held toward him, it was of the very worst sort. “I understand,” he said softly, taking a step back, also realizing just how grossly he had misconstrued the situation.

“And I am sorry — for this, and for whatever wrong I have caused you to suffer.” For a moment, her anger dropped, but she seemed to steel it back up again. “If only it were so simple,” she said, shaking her head. “But the fact that you don’t even remember me, let alone what happened — well, that says more than any apology ever could.” He could do naught but watch helplessly as she stormed away down the hallway, her red skirts furiously snapping around her legs. “Joanna?” A voice called out. He whipped his head around as he saw his sister emerging from the drawing room, following the unknown woman down the hall. “Jo—Eli?” She stopped when she saw him, looking back and forth between the woman’s retreating back and where he stood with his hands on his hips. “Oh, Eli,” she tilted her head as she looked at him with dismay, “what did you do?” “What do you mean, what did I do?” he said defensively. Why did everyone always think he had done something? Probably because he usually had.

He rubbed his brow, dismayed that nothing had changed here — especially his family’s regard toward him. “Did you talk to Joanna?” “Joanna?”

.

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