The Gift of Love – Meara Platt

Of all the bad luck. Dahlia Farthingale forced a smile on her face as the guests at her sister’s party crowded around her and cheered because she’d found the pea in her slice of Twelfth Night cake. “Queen Pea! Queen Pea!” Ugh! They were all still chanting as they closed in around her and Captain Ronan Brayden, forcing them up against each other. He had the misfortune to find the bean in his slice of cake, which meant he was now her King Bean. “King Bean! King Bean! Kiss your queen!” Dahlia’s sister, Holly, had recently married Ronan’s brother, Joshua, and this reception was to welcome family and friends to their elegant new home in Mayfair. It was still early December, too soon in the season for the traditional Yuletide cake to be served. But a fire crackled in every hearth throughout the house, and the scent of spiced wine and roasted chestnuts filled the air, so their guests were quickly drawn into the festive spirit. To add to the effect, light snow had fallen overnight, leaving London in a beautiful coat of white. Despite the bitter temperature outside, the house was filled with warmth, and everyone was imbibing quite a bit of the freely flowing champagne, mulled wine, and nog. Oh, and there was tea since this was supposed to be a tea party, but she didn’t think anyone had actually bothered with that staid drink. This explained why they were all so raucously merry. But could they not have waited until Christmas to start these silly revels? Ronan held out his hand to her. “Give me your pea, Dahlia.” She handed it over, wondering why he wanted it. She took no offense at his familiar use of her name since they were among close friends and family.

He held up the pea along with his bean, cheerfully playing to his ridiculous title of King Bean and earning the adoration of these revelers, many of whom were in their cups. Of course, adoration was nothing new to him. Several women were already swooning as he stood there in his Royal Navy uniform, looking too exquisite for words. “Ready?” He grinned wickedly and turned her to face him, his dark emerald eyes gleaming with mirth. “Don’t you dare kiss me,” she said between clenched teeth, the forced smile still on her face. He leaned closer and whispered in her ear. “If your face were any stiffer, it would crack. Breathe, Dahlia. I am only going to give you a light kiss on your cheek, not eat you.” “It isn’t only that.

We also have to open the dancing, and it’s to be a waltz. Oh, why did I have that slice of cake? Gerald won’t like this at all.” “Gerald Wainscott?” Ronan’s gaze shot to her beau. “Don’t tell me you and that priggish lord are still an item? If he finds fault with this harmless bit of fun, then he’s a humorless clot, and you are better off without him. If you want my opinion–” “Which I still don’t.” “I’ll still give it anyway,” he said, tucking a finger under her chin to draw her gaze up to his and rousing more cheers from the crowd. He leaned forward to continue whispering in her ear, knowing only she would hear him because of the surrounding noise. “He’s a pompous, overstuffed peacock who cares more for outward appearances than for what is truly important in life. He’ll crush your spirit.” “So, you like him then?” She cast Ronan an impish smirk, wanting to be irritated and take offense.

But she could never be angry with him because he meant well and always looked out for her. Over the course of these past few months, he had assigned himself to be her guardian angel. Only in small ways, of course. Offering to dance with her if he ever saw her standing alone at an affair. Suddenly appearing at her side if a gentleman he deemed unsuitable approached her. Always finding a moment to sit beside her and ask about her day. He was a typical Brayden. Ridiculously protective and forthright. Most of all, she always got an honest answer from him. Perhaps a little too honest, at times.

Being a typical Brayden also meant he was big and muscled. Built like a Roman gladiator. Handsome as sin in a rugged, manly way. He laughed and put his arm around her waist to draw her closer. “I shall try to like him for your sake. Take another deep breath. Our kiss will be quite painless, I assure you. Close your eyes and tip your head to the side, just the littlest bit.” “Why must I tip my head?” She did not understand why her thoughts were suddenly so muddled. Perhaps it was the champagne she had been served, an excellent vintage, and she’d taken two glasses already.

Or was it three? Cake, champagne, and being held in Ronan’s arms were a heady combination. “I need to get the correct angle to kiss you on the cheek. It may seem a simple matter, but it is actually a rather complex set of mathematical calculations required to–” “Kiss your queen! Kiss your queen!” “Ah, the crowd is getting restless,” he joked and brought his head down to kiss her before she was ready so that his lips landed on her mouth. Her open mouth. Her fault, really. She should not have turned and looked up at him to ask another question at this precise moment. And now that she had…holy crumpets! His warm lips pressed down on hers…and pressed some more…and…warmth flooded her body. Suddenly, everything tingled, and she became acutely aware of him. The sandalwood scent of him. The gentleness of his embrace despite the strength of his arms.

The perfection of his kiss. Oh, my heavens. He abruptly drew his mouth off hers and stared down at her in confusion. He was looking at her so oddly, she knew she must have done something terribly wrong and had to apologize at once. “I’m so sorry! You caught me unprepared. I had more questions to ask and did not see your lips coming at me until it was too late.” She was not certain he heard any of her apology, for the enthusiastic crowd was cheering too loudly and now began to shove them in the direction of the music room to open the dance. Ronan held her by the elbow to keep her from stumbling. This was always the Brayden way. If someone was in trouble, a Brayden rushed forward to help.

Not that she was in any serious trouble, but she was not very big, and this crowd would have easily knocked her down in their enthusiasm. Ronan was the size of an oak tree. No one was going to push him over. “Are you all right, Dahlia?” He appeared to be sincerely concerned, taking a moment to look her over as they stood alone on the dance floor. “A little shaken up, I fear.” Everyone was staring at them, still cheering in anticipation of the musicians striking the first notes. The musicians were a quartet consisting of a pianist, several violinists, and a harpist. Ronan’s arm went around her waist, and he placed the palm of his hand at the small of her back. With his other, he took her hand in his. “I’ve got you.

You’ll be fine.” She gave a stiff nod, just wanting this ordeal to end. First a kiss, and now a dance? She was still reeling over the touch of his mouth to hers. No man had ever kissed her before, certainly not like this. Gerald ought to have been the one to do it. So why was she relieved Ronan had been the first? He wasn’t her beau. It troubled her that she was still tingling. And dreading that Gerald would notice and find yet another reason to disapprove of her behavior. “Bollocks, you’re still wound in a tight coil. What is wrong with you today?” “I don’t know.

I want to have fun, but Gerald is tossing daggers at me. How is it my fault that I got the pea? And don’t you dare say anything to him once this dance is over. You’ve got that protective look in your eyes again. I do not want you fighting my battles.” “I am not doing any such thing.” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, you are. Stop it. He is my problem. Well, not my problem.

He is my beau.” Ronan sighed. “Forget about him for the moment. You’ve done nothing wrong.” “But I am dancing in your arms, and he obviously does not like it.” “The music hasn’t started yet. I’m just holding you.” “Which is even worse.” They stood alone in the center of the room, the crowd still applauding them and tossing Ronan advice, which included shouts of kiss her again as if their first kiss hadn’t been enough. He arched an eyebrow.

“Are you betrothed to the lunk?” “No, not yet. I think we shall be soon.” “Then he has no claim on you. Enjoy the moment. Every man in the room wishes he were the one holding you in his arms. You are young and beautiful, Dahlia. It is impossible for you to look anything but enchanting no matter what you do.” This is why she treasured Ronan’s friendship. He always made her feel good about herself, never awkward or inferior. “However, one word of caution,” he said with a glint in his eyes that warned he was about to tease her.

“Whatever you do, don’t smile.” Which had quite the opposite effect on her, as he knew it would. Her tension eased, and she cast him a heartfelt grin. He was right. It was just a dance. They were among friends and family. She did not owe Gerald an apology. The music started up, and Ronan began to slowly twirl her around the room. The ladies clapped. The men cheered.

Everyone was having a nice time. They waltzed past Gerald, and she stiffened again. Ronan frowned. “That man ties you up in knots. You must stop worrying about what he’ll think.” “I’m trying. Perhaps if I were more polished. But how can I be when I am only in my first season? Lately, Gerald seems to be finding fault with everything I do, even down to the style of my hair and the fashion of my gowns.” His frown deepened. “How long has this been going on?” “I don’t know.

Ever since I arrived in London. I always thought I had an elegant style, but apparently, he feels I am not up to London standards. Am I terribly out of step? Holly and Joshua’s house decoration turned out quite splendidly, and I had a large part in that.” “You did a fine job. I’m quite impressed.” “Ronan, is he right about the way I look? You mentioned a moment ago that I was pretty. Did you mean it? Or were you just saying this to calm my nerves?” “I believe I called you beautiful, which is what you are. If Wainscott does not appreciate you, then run from him. Do not marry him. You cannot pretend to be someone you’re not and keep up the falsehood for the next forty years.

” “Maybe I am making too much of it. Gerald knows who I am. He’s known me for most of my life. We grew up together in York. He isn’t as bad as you make him out to be.” She glanced at her beau and noticed that he was still frowning at her. “Perhaps he wouldn’t be quite so irritated if I were dancing with someone other than you.” The musicians had opened with one of Dahlia’s favorites waltzes. She was relieved to be dancing with Ronan because if she wanted to be silly and take a few extra twirls to play up to the festive onlookers, he would go along with it. Gerald never would.

In truth, it irked her that her beau often looked down his nose at such antics. To her surprise, Ronan was a very good dancer and quickly got her back into the steady glides and spins of the waltz on the occasion or two that she missed a step. She did not know why she’d expected less. Perhaps because he was a captain in the Royal Navy, and she thought he’d be awkward on his sea legs. But he hadn’t been out to sea in almost a year now, serving as the Admiralty liaison to Parliament. “Why would he care who you danced with?” She laughed and shook her head. “Surely, you must know how handsome you are. What man would not be jealous if he saw you dancing with his sweetheart?” Indeed, he was perfection. Ebony-dark hair, dark emerald eyes, and a big muscled body. Who would not find him devastatingly attractive? He was no empty head, either.

All these Braydens were highly intelligent and possessed a quick wit. She might have fallen for Ronan if he weren’t so daunting. Not that he had ever made her feel like a fumbling, inept debutante. But he had been out in the world, fought battles, was known and respected by the most powerful men in England because of his important role in Parliament. Who was she? No one yet. Her greatest achievement in all of her almost twenty years was helping Holly decorate this house. Other couples now joined them on the dance floor. Joshua and Holly, of course. This was their home, and they were the host and hostess. Dahlia’s heart gave a little tug.

They looked so happy together. Joshua was looking at Holly as though she were the only woman in existence. This is what she wanted for herself. She craned her head to find Gerald now that there were so many people waltzing around her and blocking her view. She wasn’t nearly as tall as Ronan, only on the small side of average height. Then she saw him dance past her with a young woman in his arms. “Who is she?” she asked Ronan, who had followed her gaze and knew exactly where she was looking. “Lady Alexandra Minton. She is a neighbor. Her parents own the house next door to this one.

Her father is the Earl of Balliwick.” “I see.” She took another peek at them, for there was something in the way Gerald held this young lady that sent an uneasy tingle up her spine. Ronan drew her a little closer and gave her hand a squeeze. “She’s a ninny.” Dahlia did not feel any better. “She’s very pretty.” “She has an irritating laugh and is one of the dimmest girls I’ve ever met. I doubt Wainscott will bear to be in her company for more than five minutes. He’ll come running back to you as soon as this waltz ends.

I would, for certain.” She wished she could be as confident. In truth, what did she have to offer any man? What did Gerald see in her that made him want to court her? Lately, as she had just admitted to Ronan, he did not seem to like her very much.


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