Christmas was only a few days away, and Lady Beatrice Lichfield still didn’t have an engagement ring on her finger. That fact wouldn’t have caused her distress as she worked, tying bows with sprigs of holly for the decorations that were going up all over the rented hall in Clerkenwell, where the May Flowers were holding their charity event for the benefit of several London orphanages. In fact, not wearing jewelry of any sort was a great boon when it came to the delicate work she was required to do with her hands to create the decorations. And no shiny bobbles meant that some of the more mischievous orphans who were helping with preparations weren’t tempted. But it had been months—no, years—since Bea had set her heart on Lord Harrison Manfred, Marquess of Landsbury. They’d been a part of the same group of friends ever since Bea joined the May Flowers and made the acquaintance of the likes of Lady Diana Pickwick, her very best friend in the entire world, Cecelia Campbell—who was now Lady Marlowe—and Bianca Marlowe—who was now Lady Clerkenwell and the hostess of the event. Through her female connections, Bea had been introduced to Harrison, and as far as she was concerned, it was love at first sight. She’d always thought Harrison felt the same way, but as she stood at the long table, piled high with loose ribbon, boughs of holly and pine, wire to craft the decorations with, and bits and pieces of donations that had been delivered to the hall, staring at her sadly naked fingers, she heaved a sigh. “What sort of silly, maudlin thoughts are going through your head to cause such a sigh?” Diana asked with a sardonic grin, stripping excess leaves off a sprig of holly for her decorations. Bea glanced guiltily up at her friend, knowing full well what Diana thought of the situation. Diana was as brilliant and prickly as the holly she worked with—lovely and useful, but full of unexpected spikes and barbs. She was a beauty of the highest order as well, with dark hair and eyes, a clear, pale complexion, and a figure that made London’s finest modistes compete for her custom. By contrast, Bea considered herself sallow and skinny, with too much strawberry-blonde hair and eyes that couldn’t decide whether they were blue or green. No wonder Harrison was taking his time deciding whether he wanted to be shackled to her for the remainder of his life. “I’m merely anxious that we won’t be able to finish decorating in time for the party on Christmas Eve,” she said, though she was a terrible liar.
Her cheeks flared bright pink every time she so much as thought something dishonest. Diana’s grin was all the proof she needed that her friend could see right through her. “Christmas Eve is still three days away, dearest. Which gives us ample time not only to finish decorating this hall, as shabby and cavernous as it is—” She glanced up at the rafters and around at the vast, bustling room in all its run-down glory. “—but to collect enough clothing, toys, and essentials to give half the orphans in East London the very merriest of Christmases.” “You’re right.” Bea forced herself to smile and take a breath to clear her head. “I suppose I’m overly worried for nothing.” Her attention was drawn to the door at the far side of the room as soon as she was finished speaking. Harrison had just entered, along with his close friend, Lord John Darrow, Viscount Whitlock—who also happened to be Diana’s arch-nemesis—carrying a tall pine tree between them.
Bea’s heart ran riot in her chest, thumping against her ribs and causing her to gulp for breath. Harrison was simply the handsomest man she’d ever laid eyes on. He was tall and well-formed, like so many of the cricket players he and John idolized. His face was kindness personified, with soulful, hazel eyes that displayed his emotions as though they were a stage. He smiled at several of the orphans who were there to help with decorations as they rushed to see the tree, saying something to them that Bea couldn’t hear from the other side of the room, but that she was certain was full of sweetness and wisdom. She’d longed to be Harrison’s wife from the moment he’d asked her to waltz with him at the ball where they’d met. His arms had felt so sure and certain around her, and the way he’d smiled at her and asked gentle, interesting questions to get to know her as they danced made her feel as though she were the most important woman in the— “If you were any more obvious, the fire brigade would barge through the doors to douse you with ice water, Bea,” Diana snapped at Bea’s side. “What? Oh, I—” Bea’s face flared even hotter. She snapped her head down to focus on the bow she was tying, only to discover that she’d made three knots and trapped her fingers between the ribbon. “I was just….
” She gave up her attempt at an explanation with a sigh. Diana knew the truth of things anyhow. “I don’t see how you could care for a man who spends so much of his time in the company of an absolute bounder,” Diana growled, staring daggers across the room at Lord John. Although, if Bea’s guess was right, the heat in Diana’s eyes every time she glared at John was of a different sort than what Diana imagined it to be. “I see it as a distinct lack of character that your beau has such wicked friends.” “Lord John isn’t wicked.” Bea broke into a grin and sent Diana a sideways look. “And Harrison is simply wonderful for volunteering his time for the May Flowers’s cause. He’s a gentleman and a peer, and there are a great many other things he could be doing at Christmastime instead of decorating a public hall in Clerkenwell for the sake of orphans.” “Yes, well, I’m certain that Bianca turned the thumb-screws on that entire lot, forcing them to help with preparations when they would much rather have been lazing about their club, smoking cigars and gambling.
” Bea laughed out loud at the image. “Harrison doesn’t care for smoking,” she said, her laugh turning into a sigh as she watched him and John anchor their tree in a stand and secure it. “He does care for charitable causes. Why, just the other day, at Lady Hartnell’s Christmas concert, he was telling me how passionate he is about supporting the downtrodden and funding those men and women who work on their behalf.” Diana hummed suspiciously, her gaze set on John. “I would wager he said that in order to impress you. Most likely so that you would slip into the next room with him and let him take liberties.” A spark of longing lit her eyes as she spoke, still studying John. “Harrison would never be so inconsiderate,” Bea said with a knowing grin. That grin faded quickly, though.
Harrison hadn’t once taken liberties with her. The most passionate thing he’d done in the years that they’d known and flirted with each other was to remove her glove so that he could kiss her bare hand. And while that had taken her breath away, she would be lying to herself if she said she hadn’t wanted more. “Why hasn’t he proposed yet?” she whispered passionately. Her accidental outburst happened just as Bianca crossed behind her and Diana. Bianca stopped and rocked back to stand between Bea and Diana, staring across the room at Harrison and John as they finished with the tree, then rushed to help a man who had just brought several boxes of donations through the door. “Are you still waiting for Harrison to propose?” Bianca asked, the side of her mouth twitching into a grin. Bea pulled her gaze away from Harrison to stare guiltily at Bianca. “I’m afraid that at this point, it’s not going to happen.” “Nonsense,” Bianca snorted.
“That man has been besotted with you for at least two years.” “Perhaps.” Bea lowered her eyes, wanting to believe it but not letting herself hope. Bianca stared at her like she had spit on her mother’s grave. “You can’t possibly tell me that you think the man would do anything but propose,” she said. “It hasn’t happened yet, so I despair of it happening at all,” Bea said. Bianca shook her head. “And here I thought you were intelligent.” “Bea is intelligent,” Diana said, back to glaring across the room as Harrison and John took the new boxes of donations to a table that was already overloaded with various crates, sacks, and parcels of clothing, toys, and necessities. “It’s men who lack basic intelligence.
” Again, Bianca laughed. “You’re not wrong,” she said, then laid a hand on Bea’s shoulder. “He’ll propose, ducky. I know it. A man doesn’t look at a woman the way Harrison looks at you without marriage on his mind. And besides, it’s nearly Christmas. What better time to ask a woman to spend the whole rest of her life with him than at Christmas?” “If you say so,” Bea said with a wistful sigh. She tried to return to tying bows, but her heart, her thoughts, and her eyes flew back to Harrison at the other end of the room. She would have given anything to know if he planned to marry her or if she’d been imagining his regard for her. She only wished she would work up the nerve to let him know that, if he asked for her hand, her answer would be a resounding yes.
“I’M MERELY SAYİNG that the moment has to be perfect,” Harrison said to John as he wedged the box filled with musty-smelling clothes and old shoes onto the table that was already overflowing with donations. “A man only gets once chance to propose to the woman of his dreams, and I’m determined to get it right.” John laughed at him, of course, slapping him on the back as soon as he’d found a place on the crowded table for the load of old coats in his arms. “You’re the most maudlin man I know,” he said. “I swear, you should have been born a poet, not a peer.” “No man is born a poet,” Harrison said with a grin, pushing a few boxes around on the table to make room for more. “Poetry is inspired in a man by the beauty and perfection of his subject.” He pivoted to glance across the room at Lady Beatrice. Bea really was the most extraordinary woman he’d ever met. She was kind and gentle while still being strong and passionate about the causes the May Flowers stood for.
Where Lady Diana and some of the others waved their fists and bullied the audiences they spoke to about women’s rights and Ireland, Beatrice spoke reason in a quiet voice, convincing even the most stubborn old men that she might have a point. And she was gorgeous, though he suspected she didn’t know it. Her hair was the most enticing reddish-blonde color, her lips were rosy and full, and her eyes were a unique shade of blue-green that he’d found himself lost in on more than one occasion. He couldn’t count the number of nights he’d lain awake, tossing and turning with desire for her to the point where he’d had to take care of things on his own just to put himself out of his misery. And yet, with all the pent-up desire he had for Bea, he would never in a million years have importuned her honor by putting her in a position she might not have been comfortable with. “You’re a besotted fool,” John laughed, shaking his head. “Why torture yourself waiting for the perfect moment to come along? It’s not the proposal, or the wedding, that matters, it’s the life you two were meant to have together. Get on with it.” “I intend to,” Harrison said, excitement shooting through him. He glanced around to make sure as few people as possible were close enough to listen in, going so far as to nudge John’s arm and gesture for him to walk to the end of the table where fewer people were milling about.
Once they were separated and in relative privacy, Harrison reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and took out a small, old, velvet box. With a proud look and a flutter in his overly-sentimental heart, he opened the box to show John the ring inside. “Why, Harrison,” John said, his mouth twitching into a grin as his eyes danced with teasing. “I had no idea you felt this way. Yes, yes, I’ll marry you.” “No, you dolt.” Harrison let out an impatient breath, knowing full well his friend was ribbing him. “It’s a family ring,” he went on in a whisper. “I had a formal audience with my grandmother just the other day to inform her of my intentions to ask for Lady Beatrice’s hand. Grandmama presented me with this ring, which belonged to her mother, one Lady Caroline Herrington.
” “Well, there you have it,” John said with a shrug. “So get over there, go down on one knee, and propose.” He nodded across the room to where Bea and Diana had taken a handful of red bows to fasten to a pine garland that was draped over a tall, wide fireplace. “Not here,” Harrison said, closing the lid of the box. “And not now.” “Then when and where?” John asked, crossing his arms. “Christmas Eve,” Harrison said. “After the party for the orphans is finished. I’ll offer to take Bea home, but I plan to whisk her off to a particularly beautiful spot overlooking the Thames. I’ll propose there.
” John shook his head. “You’re making things overly complicated. You don’t need family rings and picturesque backdrops. Bea would marry you if you’d tripped in a mud puddle, splashed her favorite gown in the process, and asked the question while still wallowing in the grime.” “But why be cavalier about something so important when you can make an impression?” Harrison asked. “Or are you just cynical because Diana would laugh in your face if you proposed to her?” John’s brow shot up with mock offense. “I would have you know that if I proposed to Diana right now, she would—” He didn’t get a chance to finish his boast. A crash sounded from the other end of the room, along with a yelp that Harrison knew in an instant belonged to Bea. He rushed forward, depositing the ring box on the edge of the table as he went, and rushed to Bea’s aid, John right behind him. “Bea, are you all right?” he asked, heart pounding with worry, as he and John reached the fireplace.
A small stepstool lay on its side, and the pine garland Bea was attaching bows to was half torn off, the end trailing on the floor, too close to the fire for comfort. “I’m fine,” Bea said, the most gorgeous blush on her porcelain face as she straightened and brushed pine needles from her skirt. “I simply lost my balance on the stool is all. It’s silly really.” “Here, let me help you.” Harrison bent to set the stool upright. Bea watched him, her eyes lowered fetchingly, her shapely mouth stretching into a smile as she did. “Now, just allow me to fasten this bough to the mantle again and you’ll be able to hang your bows.” “Thank you, Harrison.” The tenderness in Bea’s eyes was all the gift Harrison needed that Christmas.
“Lady Diana, I would have expected you to take better care of your friend,” John told Diana in a mock scolding voice. “Oh, you would, would you?” Diana crossed her arms and glared at John. “And I suppose you would have done a better job of hanging bows?” “I do a better job of just about everything than you do, pet,” John said, deliberately antagonizing her. Diana let out an outraged huff and stomped her foot before marching back to the table where supplies for making bows were scattered. Harrison exchanged a knowing look with Bea as she stepped onto the stool to hand her bows. The moment of connection was priceless. “They’ll be the death of each other someday,” he said, adding a wink. “I’m certain they will be,” Bea replied in an intimate voice. Maybe John was right and he was a sap after all, but Harrison couldn’t help but be thrilled at the brief exchange. It was as though the rest of the world had disappeared, leaving just the two of them and the need that pulsed between them.
He could have stayed by Bea’s side all day, helping her with whatever task she needed help with, being her devoted servant. He assisted her with hanging bows for as long as he could, but all too soon, she needed to return to her table to craft a few more. “Thank you again for your help,” she said as Harrison moved around the table and worked up his will to leave her side. “Anything you need from me,” he said, hovering on the other side of the table from her for a moment. At last, he let out a sigh and turned to head back across the room to the other set of tables. He’d collect his great-grandmother’s ring, pry John away from Lady Diana long enough to head out for a spot of coffee, and figure out exactly how to orchestrate the perfect proposal, and then— He stopped dead, his heart sinking into his stomach as he glanced across the room only to find the table where he’d put the ring completely empty. Dread filled him as he strode across the room, careful not to arouse Bea’s suspicions—he still wanted the proposal to come as a surprise, after all, and if she had reason to ask why he was running across the room all of a sudden, he’d have to explain the ring—hoping that his eyes deceived him. But no, the donations table was completely empty, not a scrap of anything that had once been there in sight.