Mismatched Under the Mistletoe – Jess Michaels

You cannot truly mean to marry.” John Cavendish shook his head at his longest and truest friend, Andrew Rutledge. The party around them spun merrily on, but he hardly noticed it, so focused was he on this imperative moment. “You’re barely one and twenty and have not even inherited your title. You must sow your oats a few years more before you surrender to the debutantes and mamas!” Rutledge laughed. “My oats, as you put it, are sown, Cav. I will never have need to do that again.” Cav let out his breath in a frustrated sigh. “Great God, please don’t wax poetic. Whoever this young lady is, she cannot deserve such gooey eyes and fluttering hands. Nor can I support her taking off the market one of the finest rakes ever to grace London.” “I think you are more concerned about losing your partner in trouble more than you are about my well-being,” Rutledge said, but there was no heat or accusation to his tone. “I’m certain you won’t be lacking friends at the brothels or gaming tables.” “You aren’t planning on even going gaming anymore?” Cav burst out. “I really must meet this siren who has so bewitched my best and truest friend.

” “And you shall, for she just entered the room.” Rutledge lifted on the balls of his feet, seeking out someone in the crowd. Cav followed his friend’s stare, looking from young lady to young lady and seeing none who would inspire such intense dedication and surrender within weeks of a first meeting. He was about to make a snide comment about just that when the crowd parted a fraction and a woman stepped free from its jostling. Everything else fell away as she glided toward Cav. She had hair like corn silk, pulled back from a beautiful face with high cheekbones and full lips. Her eyes matched her gown, a Mediterranean blue that sparkled with delight as her mouth widened in a smile. He couldn’t breathe. It was the strangest thing. He’d been around dozens of beautiful women in his life.

He’d danced with them and chatted with them and bedded more than a few. He’d never felt like this. As if a hand had pushed into his chest and constricted his heart. As if his world had been flipped on its head and now he had no idea how to right it. It was a lightning bolt. The kind written about in books. And he realized, as she reached him, that he would never be the same. “Rutledge!” she said with a delighted laugh. Cav stared, the world winding down to half time as his best friend reached out and took the hand she offered. He lifted it to his lips and she blushed.

She never took her eyes off Rutledge. He never took his eyes off her. And the world that had been turned upside down a moment before felt destroyed as Cav realized this was the woman who had aroused such instant and intense adoration in Rutledge. At least Cav understood now. “Lady Emily, might I present my dearest friend John Cavendish. And Cav, this is Emily.” Rutledge’s chest puffed up with pride and delight. “She is the daughter of the Duke of Wolfsome, and somehow she has agreed to become my future bride.” Cav couldn’t form words. How could one form words in a moment like this? “Good evening,” Lady Emily said when he did not say anything.

She extended her hand toward him. “I’ve heard such wonderful things about you, Mr. Cavendish. I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance.” Cav blinked, fighting against the rising tide of emotion. He’d never been one to believe in love at first sight. How he wished that he’d never experienced it. Rutledge cleared his throat, and his pointed glare was what Cav needed to jolt from his state of shock and awe. “Lady Emily,” he choked out as he bowed over the hand still waiting there for him. It was such a delicate hand.

He engulfed it with his own. Wrong as it was, he wished she weren’t wearing gloves in that moment, just so he could touch her. “I am pleased to meet you, as well.” That seemed to make Rutledge happy, for he stopped glaring and tucked Emily’s hand into the crook of his arm. He grinned at Cav. “You must call him by his nickname, Emily. After all, he is my best friend, and what is mine is yours.” Cav had to fight not to physically recoil at that statement since Rutledge said it as he looked at him, not her. As if she could be his. Which was clearly and patently untrue.

She looked up into Rutledge’s face with pure adoration. “I would only do so if Mr. Cavendish agreed to such a thing,” she said with another of those fetching blushes. “Of course,” Cav managed to force past a suddenly dry throat. “After all, Rutledge is my best friend. And as he said, what is his is yours. I am at your service.” She smiled, and he could see how truly happy she was at the idea that they would all be fast friends. And they would be. Rutledge was more like a brother to Cav than a mere friend.

If he had these strange, powerful feelings in this moment, surely he would master them. “Well, I cannot wait for you two to get to know each other better,” Rutledge said. “And now, Lady Emily, I would very much like to have the next dance, if your card is free.” “For you, it will always be free,” she said, and her face lit up with joy and certainty. Rutledge grinned again at Cav and then took her away, into the crowd, onto the dancefloor. As Cav watched his best friend dance with the remarkable woman he had chosen for his bride, he let his forced smile fall. They were happy together. And it hurt like a sword to the chest. Mastering this sudden and powerful feeling might not be as easy as he hoped. So perhaps his better option was to push it down…down deep where horrible things like this belonged.

He would never act on it, that was all he knew. He was many things, not all of them good, but he would never allow himself to be the kind of man who would do that. Chapter 1 Nine Years Later Lady Emily Rutledge took the hand her driver offered and stepped down from her carriage on the walkway. She shook her head and looked up the stairway toward the front door. Outside, a footman swept the afternoon’s dusting of snow away from the walkway, and she paused. “Good afternoon, Arthur!” The footman looked up from his work and gave her a smile. “Good afternoon, my lady. Almost finished here.” She nodded. “I see that.

” “And how was the shopping?” Emily laughed as she lifted the two satchels in her hands and motioned to the carriage, which was being unloaded as they spoke. “Productive. Thank you.” “Mr. Cavendish is here,” the young man said. Emily pursed her lips. Cav was always late to every appointment except the ones he took with her. It was a joke between them now, but on days like today she wished he hadn’t changed that bad habit for her. “Oh, I know. I’m so late.

Good afternoon, Arthur!” As she scurried up the freshly swept steps, she heard the footman laughing after her. “Good afternoon, my lady.” She burst into the foyer to find her butler, Cringle, already waiting for her. She smiled as she handed over her packages, then her gloves, scarf and coat in rapid succession. “Should these go in the gift room, my lady?” he asked, indicating the bags. “Yes, those two and the ones outside.” She gave him a conspiratorial look. “How long has Cav been waiting?” “Mr. Cavendish has been in the parlor for a bit over a half an hour, my lady.” He tilted his head.

She smothered another laugh. “Oh, I shall be railed upon for sure. Thank you, Cringle.” He nodded as he moved away to the room upstairs that Emily had long ago set aside for gifts and wrapping. She kept it well-stocked with items all year round, but never was it so packed as the weeks leading up to Christmas, when Emily filled it to capacity with gifts for her relatives, friends and servants. Just the thought of it now filled her with giddy anticipation of the reactions of those she cared about when they opened her perfect gift for them. She threw open the parlor door to find Cav sitting on a settee beside the roaring fire. In the fraction of a moment it took for him to rise to his feet in greeting, a wash of emotion hit Emily in the chest. It had been five years since her husband died of a sudden fever, followed by both her parents. Five years of heartbreak and mourning and loneliness.

She had only truly begun to feel herself again in the last twelve months. But seeing Cav always brought Andrew back to her mind. Cav had been his best friend, after all. He had become hers, too. When loss had become a constant companion, so had Cav. She shook those thoughts aside as Cav got to his feet. He was a handsome man. Tall, broad shouldered, with dark blond curls that always looked just a bit mussed. Like he’d run his hands through them. Like someone else had done the same.

Certainly plenty of someone else’s had. The man had a certain reputation with the ladies. “Emily,” he said with a teasing arch of his brow and a quick flick of his head toward the clock on the mantel. She laughed, pushing her thoughts away as she rushed to him and took his outstretched hands. “I know, I know!” she gasped. “I’m sorry to have kept you.” His gaze flickered over her face. The smile remained but something darker entered his eyes. She found herself glancing away from it. He often had that expression when he looked at her.

Something a little…forlorn. She supposed she reminded him of Andrew, just as he reminded her. “I am freezing,” she said, releasing him and rushing to the sideboard to look at what had been brought for refreshments. “Did you pour yourself tea?” He held up the cup from the table beside the settee. “And Cringle brought those cakes Mrs. Lisle makes this time of year. She must know I crave them.” “Everyone knows you crave them,” she teased as she put sugar in her tea and then took a sip with a sigh of pleasure. “You make a very theatrical expression of it any time they are served.” “I know my audience,” he said with a wink in her direction.

“Mrs. Lisle loves my boisterous declarations, which allows me more cakes.” She shook her head. “You are hopeless. I don’t even know why I invited you here.” He laughed, but he set his cup aside and took a long step toward her. The warmth of him hit her, the spicy scent that always accompanied his arrival a comfort. “I’m not sure why you invited me either,” he said. “But I’m sure I can ascertain the answer if you give me a moment to observe.” He pressed a finger to his lips and looked her up and down.

“You are happy.” She wrinkled her brow. “Don’t sound so surprised by that fact. I’m a happy person, am I not?” “You are, indeed. Practically bottled sunshine,” he teased. “But today you are positively glowing. You are up to something.” “You do know me so well.” Emily leaned closer. “Cav, I have had an idea.

No, not just an idea, the best of ideas, and I need your help!” Cav held her stare for a moment, then tilted his head back and laughed. The tendons in his neck flexed above his cravat as he did so. Emily blushed. She knew she was exuberant. She couldn’t help it. Emotions were something she had never been able to hide. If she was joyful or excited, she showed it. “All right, Emily. You have intrigued me. What is this idea?” he asked.

“Although we…lost Andrew five years ago,” she began, and the smile on Cav’s face fell slightly. He was truly the only one who felt the loss as keenly as she did. He had practically been Andrew’s brother. She hastened to continue, “I have only returned to Society in the last eighteen months or so.” “Yes,” he said, drawing out the word with a look of concern on his face. “And?” “I’ve been doing something of a study of the gentleman and ladies of our acquaintance during that time,” she said. “I see,” he said. “And what have you determined?” “I have developed a few theories about matches that end up being successful to both partners.” She smiled. “Not just financially or by linking important families, but by the happiness and affection the couple ultimately develops.

” His mouth twitched. “Are you…in the market for happiness and affection in a match?” She shook her head. “Gracious, no. I had both, you know I did. I am not in a position where I must marry, thanks to the financial protections Andrew put in place for me. I do not think I would ever be tempted to wed again.” He turned away and paced to the sideboard, where he fiddled with the bottles of liquor lined up along the top. “Then why make a study?” “For other people,” she burst out. He stared at her, his expression utterly blank. “I don’t understand.

” She huffed out her breath. “I’m saying that I could successfully match couples who might not have ever thought of each other, if only I could seclude them together in the proper circumstances.” Cav leaned back. “Play…matchmaker.” Emily nodded. “Yes. And this is the perfect time of year to do so. The Christmas holidays are just around the corner, and there is romance in every snowflake and cheery red ribbon.” Cav smiled at her in that indulgent way he sometimes did when she was going on like this. “You should write one of those novels you insist on reading out loud to me in the winter.

” “Oh, don’t pretend that you don’t love them,” she said with a playful scowl. “I intend to have a party out at my estate in Crossfox and invite six ladies—and their chaperones, of course—and six gentlemen. Then I shall see if I can end the party with six very happy couples.” His eyes went wide and for what felt like an eternity he just stared at her. “A whole party to matchmake these poor unsuspecting people.” Emily pursed her lips in mild annoyance. “I know you are a resigned bachelor, Cav, and an unrepentant rake, but you act as if I intend to do something horrible to them.” “No. Just force them into each other’s arms,” Cav muttered. “And when do you propose to do this thing?” “We will start the day after Christmas.

Crossfox is so close to London, it isn’t a difficult journey for any of those I intend to invite. I plan twelve days of merriment.” “Twelve days,” Cav said. “Like the poem.” “Exactly.” She clapped her hands together. “I know it doesn’t line up exactly with the real twelve days of Christmas.” “Yes, one whole day off the true timeline. What will the scholars think?” She laughed. “They will have to forgive me and say it’s close enough.

I have so many plans for each day and the fun that can be had with the poem.” “Wait, you are proceeding with the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas?” She tilted her head. “Of course! What could be more festive?” “There are a great many birds in that poem, Emily,” he said. “So, so many birds.” She folded her arms. “And I will manage them all. It will be enchanting.” He chuckled again. “Of course it will be. With you in charge, how could it be anything but?” “Don’t tease me,” she said with a playful swat on his upper arm.

“I sent out the invitations this morning before I went on my shopping excursion. And my estate staff is already readying themselves for the arrivals. Would you like to hear who I have in mind to attend?”

.

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