Steamy Winter Wishes – Grace Callaway

“Of all the delightful Scottish traditions at your house party, Emma dear,” Marianne Kent said as she sorted through a pile of newspapers, “I must say ‘redding the house’ counts as my least favorite.” Wearing one of her oldest dresses with an apron tied over it, Emma Kent McLeod, the Duchess of Strathaven, was busy consulting her list of tasks. Redding the house was an important part of Hogmanay, or Scottish New Year’s Eve, and involved cleaning one’s home to greet the incoming year with good luck. As Emma’s home was Strathmore Castle, a behemoth of a building with turrets, sprawling wings, and over a hundred chambers, there was much work to be done. At present, Emma was in her husband Alaric’s study, joined by her sisters-in-law Marianne and Tessa Kent and her friend Beatrice Murray. She was reviewing the third item she’d jotted down on her lengthy list: Tidying Up Alaric’s Study. Given her husband’s habits, this was a Herculean task and included several sub-items. Normally, Emma, who liked having things orderly, would have enjoyed organizing the room. Yet the truth was she was a bit peaked…and her fatigue confounded her. From the time her mama had passed when she was fourteen to now, her thirty-seventh year, she’d always managed household duties with boundless energy. In particular, the winter holidays were a time where she put her usual vigor and vim to good use. This year, several dozen guests had descended upon Strathmore Castle, and she’d done plenty of preparation. Things had gone off without a hitch thus far. The halls were decked with holly and mistletoe, the suppers had been delicious, and the activities she’d organized—including an archery tournament, a piano concert given by her sister Thea, and a participatory theatre production for the children—had been well received. There was more to come.

In Scotland, Hogmanay festivities eclipsed those of Christmas, and she wanted her guests to have an authentic taste of her adopted home’s culture. On the eve of the new year, there would be a ritual called “saining the house,” which involved blessing the house with sacred water and burning juniper branches to ward off evil. There would also be feasting, singing, and dancing. After the stroke of midnight, the “first-footer” or first visitor of the year would arrive, bearing tidings for the new year. Emma had hired a professional first-footer, a local blacksmith known to bring good luck to the houses he entered. Now thinking of all she had planned made her feel a teensy bit exhausted. I just need to get a good night’s sleep, she told herself. I’ll be right as rain in the morning. Emma summoned a smile for the other ladies. Against the masculine backdrop of dark-paneled walls, leather upholstery, and rich Aubusson carpets, her three friends tackled their assigned tasks.

Marianne, a glamorous silver blonde, sat upon a studded sofa as she rifled through a pile of old newspapers. Tessa, a petite curly-haired brunette whose pregnancy was just beginning to show in her crimson frock, half-heartedly swiped a feather duster over the windowsills. Willowy blonde Bea appeared engrossed in her task: her lavender eyes had a look of concentration as she put a bookshelf in alphabetical order. Feeling guilty that she was putting her guests to work, Emma said, “You don’t have to help, you know. In fact, you ought to be enjoying the activities with the other guests.” She furrowed her brow. “You did see the schedule? There are card games and—” “We saw the schedule. How can we enjoy ourselves knowing that you’re slaving away in here?” Tessa rolled her jade-green eyes. “Although that does beg the question: why don’t you let your veritable army of servants handle this?” “Hear, hear.” Marianne fanned herself with one of the papers.

“Delegation is a lady’s prerogative. And you are a duchess after all, Em.” Why does everyone feel the need to remind me? Emma thought with a touch of impatience. Just this morning, Alaric had made a point of telling her she ought to relax and let the servants take care of everything. As she had been in the middle of planning amusements for the children—including their own, twelve-year-old Livy and nine-year-old Christopher— she’d been a trifle short with him. He had looked hurt, and she’d instantly felt guilty. When she’d tried to apologize, Alaric had sighed. I just don’t want you to overdo, pet. You look tired, he’d said. You know how you get around the holidays…and this year has been a busy one.

Her mind had snagged on his comment about her looking “tired,” but she’d summoned a smile and told him she was fine. Afterward, she’d checked the looking glass, seeing dark smudges beneath her brown eyes and, horror of horrors, a strand of silver in her chestnut-brown hair. She’d plucked it out with a determined hand and carried on with her morning to-do list. After luncheon, Alaric had taken some of the guests on a pheasant shoot. His absence gave her the prime opportunity to tidy up his study. “The servants have over a hundred other rooms to contend with, not to mention a house full of guests,” Emma said. “The least I can do is take care of a few rooms. Besides, His Grace is particular about his private domain and doesn’t permit staff to muck around in here, as he puts it.” Marianne stilled in the act of sorting the newspapers, her fair brows drawing together. “Are you certain Strathaven wants us to be in here?” “We are not staff,” Em said airily.

“At any rate, it is just his excuse to justify his reluctance to throw anything away. What year is that edition of The Times?” Marianne focused her emerald gaze on the front page. “Oh, dear. 1835.” Em lifted her brows. “You see what I mean?” “The tendency to hoard must be a male trait.” Tessa ambled over, dropping the duster on the floor and plopping herself down in a chair adjacent Marianne. “You ought to see Harry’s study.” As Emma had helped to raise her younger brother Harry, she was well aware of his tendencies. He was a brilliant scientist, and his environment oft reflected his diverse and varied interests.

In recent years, he’d been heading the research division of Great London Northern Railway, known as GLNR, and become a renowned expert in the field of explosive devices. He’d been caught up with business in London but was due to arrive soon. Emma couldn’t wait to see him. “Luckily, Mr. Kent has GLNR’s laboratory to conduct his experiments in. According to Wick, he has been spending some late nights there of late,” Beatrice said from the bookshelves. “Wick” was Wickham Murray, Bea’s husband, an industrialist who was also a partner in GLNR. A charming fellow, he happened to be the brother-in-law of Emma’s hoydenish middle sister Violet. “That bodes well for you, Tessa,” Bea went on with a teasing smile. “As Mr.

Kent has blown up two laboratories already, I think it is best he doesn’t do his experimentation at home.” Emma expected spirited Tessa to have an amusing rejoinder. Instead, Tessa burst into tears. Em exchanged shocked glances with Marianne and Bea: Tessa, the granddaughter of London’s most notorious cutthroat and one of the rare females to oversee a territory in the city’s underworld, was no watering pot. Amongst the underclass, she was known as the “Duchess of Covent Garden” and was a fierce protector of the women and children who lived in her domain. She had a spine of steel, and the sight of her sobbing was cause for concern. Emma rushed over with a handkerchief, everyone gathering around Tessa. Tessa dabbed at her eyes. “I-I’m sorry.” “You never have to apologize to us, dear,” Emma said soothingly.

“We’ve all had our moments.” “Is it the pregnancy?” Marianne’s expression was understanding. “The slightest provocation reduced me to tears when I was carrying Sophie.” “It is not that.” Tessa’s voice hitched. “The truth is…I think Harry has lost interest in me.” She burst into tears again. As Emma rubbed her sister-in-law’s back, she was actually relieved at the apparent cause of Tessa’s tears. She knew her brother: Harry was head-over-heels in love with his wife. Although he was a private sort who liked to hold his cards close, he’d never seemed happier.

Thus, whatever was going on, Emma was confident that Tessa was mistaken. “But Mr. Kent adores you.” Bea looked confused. “Why would you think he has lost interest?” “He has been, um, avoiding me for the past few weeks.” Emma frowned. “Could you be more specific?” Biting her lip, Tessa said, “Well, he has been working late most nights. And when he comes home, he is tired and well, he doesn’t try to…to you know.” Her cheeks turned rosy. “There has been a definite change in his behavior.

” “Doesn’t that coincide with the first weeks of your pregnancy?” Bea asked. “You told us that you’ve been feeling rather ill. Isn’t it possible that Mr. Kent is merely being considerate?” “Perhaps. I have been casting my accounts nearly every morning. I have also been perspiring profusely and am showing far earlier than the first time around.” Tessa’s lower lip wobbled. “What man would find that attractive?” “You should have a talk with my daughter Rosie,” Marianne said dryly. “She had the same harebrained notion that her husband had lost interest when she was with child. When she finally got upset enough to talk to him about it, he reassured her of his affections quite convincingly.

” “But there’s more.” Tessa took a deep breath. “Harry lied to me.” Bea frowned. “About what?” “Three nights before I left to come here, he told me he was working late at his office. But he wasn’t at his office.” “How do you know this?” Em asked. Tessa sniffled. “I had him followed.” “Oh, my dear.

” Marianne looked torn between amusement and concern. “Are you certain that was the wisest course of action?” “It is best to know what one is dealing with.” Tessa raised her chin, a defiant spark in her eyes. “My grandpapa taught me that.” Emma wondered how to explain to the poor dear that her family’s cutthroat methods might not be best suited to marriage. Instead, she said, “Couldn’t you simply talk to Harry?” “I have tried, but he keeps telling me nothing is wrong. He even suggested that I was overemotional.” Tessa crossed her arms with a huff. “Me, the Duchess of Covent Garden, overwrought. Imagine that!” Privately, Emma thought she didn’t have to imagine it: it was happening in front of her.

Nonetheless, she understood Tessa’s insecurity and wanted to help. “Have you specifically asked Harry about where he was that night?” Emma persisted. Some of the fire left Tessa’s eyes. She shook her head. “I think you must, dearest,” Marianne said firmly. “For your own peace of mind.” “But what if…what if it brings about the very opposite?” “I promise you it will not. I know Harry,” Emma said. “Just talk to him.” “I am not usually such a ninny.

” Lacing her fingers in her lap, Tessa said in a low voice, “I just haven’t felt like myself lately. What with the queasiness and losing Swift Nick…” Emma squeezed Tessa’s shoulder, knowing how much the other grieved for her beloved pet ferret who’d passed away a few months ago. “And I’ve never spent the holiday away from Grandpapa and Mama, but they didn’t want to travel to Scotland,” Tessa said miserably. “Botheration, I am acting like a wet blanket, aren’t I? I am sorry to ruin the party spirit.” “You haven’t ruined anything. In point of fact, I think this is a good thing,” Emma said brightly. “We are redding ourselves as well as the house. Might as well get things off our chest before the new year.” “In that case…” Bea bit her lip. “There is something I would like to say.

To you, Emma: thank you for putting my brother on your guest list. Hadleigh is not…well, he’s not welcome in some circles, and it was generous of you to include him.” With a stab of empathy, Emma saw the pain that tautened Bea’s features, pulling on the thin scar that curved over her right cheek. Bea’s younger brother, the Duke of Hadleigh, and his duchess were quite scandalous and considered personae non gratae by some sticklers. More than once, Bea had confided in Emma that she was concerned about her brother’s drinking and wild behaviors. Bea had also expressed regret over the years of estrangement between her and Hadleigh, which had been caused by Hadleigh’s ruthless pursuit of vengeance against the man who’d caused Bea’s scar. Hadleigh’s actions had led to tragic consequences, and while he’d tried to make amends, the relationship between the siblings remained distant at best. Emma, who had five siblings of her own, understood the value of family. Bea clearly cared about her brother, even if she didn’t put it in so many words. Emma saw Bea’s conflict, the push and pull between love and forgiveness, and wanted to help however she could.

“Family is family,” Emma said softly. “He is welcome here.” Bea gave a grateful nod. “While we are at it,” Marianne spoke up, “I shall add my own concerns: Ambrose works too hard.”

.

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