When She Was Naughty – Tessa Dare

Chloe Garland looked about the ballroom adorned with greenery and gold bunting, enjoying the familiar, delicious shiver of anticipation. After all, what was Christmas without anticipation? As a girl, she had anticipated the sweetmeats and gifts, like every other child. As her older brothers and sisters began marrying and moving out of the family home, she longed for Christmas because they would all be together again. And then, when she’d grown out of childhood and become a young lady, she’d started anticipating a different Christmas tradition: the family’s annual Christmas Eve ball. Over the years, the party had become a not-to-be-missed event. Her parents’ hospitality and merrymaking were legendary. The music was lively, the décor was unmatched, and the mulled wine flowed freely. Her first silk gown, her first sip of brandy punch, her first dance with a gentleman…every milestone in her life had happened right here in this ballroom, on Christmas Eve. Now, at the age of four-and-twenty, Chloe was still finding new Christmas Eve delights to anticipate. Tonight, she was anxiously awaiting the appearance of one particular gentleman. Justin Peregrine St. George Deville Montague, the fifth Earl of Cheverell. She took two brimming cups of punch from a servant passing a tray and searched out her mother in the crowd. She found her without difficulty. Mama was impossible to miss.

Her hair had gone silver and her hips had widened, and she was still the most captivating woman in any room. It was easy to see why she’d first caught Papa’s eye, and why he still gazed adoringly at her across the dinner table, more than thirty years later. “Mama, you’ve outdone yourself yet again.” Chloe kissed her mother on the cheek and passed her a cup of punch. “Has Lord Cheverell graced us with his presence yet?” she asked, trying to sound as if she cared less then she did. Her mother shook her head. “Not yet. I do hope he joins us. It feels a bit unfair that we’ve stolen his cousin away at the holidays.” “We didn’t steal Rebecca.

Andrew married her, and I do believe she was quite willing.” “You know what I mean. They were raised together, and Cheverell hasn’t any other family. I’d hate to think of him all alone at Christmas, with no relations to keep him company.” “I believe Lord Cheverell prefers his own company best of all.” “Chloe, I don’t know what you have against the poor man.” “Poor man? He’s not a poor man, he’s an obscenely wealthy man. And I would hold nothing against him, if he did not hold himself above us.” “He is above us,” Mama pointed out. “He’s an earl.

We are mere gentry. But if Lord Cheverell held our circumstances against us, he wouldn’t have permitted his only cousin to marry your brother. He wouldn’t call on your father when he’s in town, or join us for family outings.” “Of course he would do all that. He wants to see Rebecca. He merely suffers the rest of us.” He suf ers me least of all, Chloe thought. Over the months of their acquaintance, she and Lord Cheverell had butted heads at every turn. Chloe was a Garland. She preferred to enjoy life.

To laugh too loudly and dance too wildly and occasionally go barefoot in summertime. It seemed a travesty to go through one’s life on earth without ever actually touching the earth. And yet, she doubted that Lord Cheverell had ever brushed an ungloved finger over a lowly blade of grass, or caught a single snowflake on his tongue. Apparently C earls weren’t allowed these small pleasures. Chloe would be content to let that be his problem, if he did not seem determined to ruin her pleasure as well. When they were in company together, which happened all too often now, he made her keenly aware of his disapproval. He hovered over her, scrutinizing her every move. He met her witty remarks with curt retorts. Whenever her manners displayed anything less than ladylike perfection, he fixed her with a disdainful gaze. Now that their families were connected, Chloe would never be rid of the man.

“Lord Cheverell has never been anything but proper and courteous,” Mama said. “Yes, that’s the problem. He’s so stiff and cold.” “Some people take time to warm to others.” “It’s been almost a year. If he means to mix with our family, he must learn to be less serious. We are not a serious family. We play cricket when the weather is fine, and parlor games when it is not. We still tell stories about that time Eliza drank straight from the vinegar bottle and coughed for weeks, even if it was ten years ago.” “He’ll soften eventually.

Be patient.” Chloe was tired of waiting on Lord Cheverell to emerge from his spotless aristocratic eggshell. Because, in the meantime, he found every reason to peck at her. And though she hated to admit it, it hurt. She didn’t know why she cared whether he liked her or not. She shouldn’t—but for some vexing reason, she did. Nevertheless, she wasn’t going to let him spoil her joy on her favorite night of the year. That was where the plan came in. She smiled behind her cup. “His thaw might come sooner than you suspect, Mama.

Something tells me that Lord Cheverell will show a sudden change in demeanor tonight.” A sudden change in wardrobe, at least. Her mother arched an eyebrow. “Chloe Anne Garland, what have you done?” “Nothing,” Chloe said innocently. Nothing but send Lord Cheverell the ugliest, gaudiest, most repellently festive waistcoat in the history of Christmas and convince him to wear it tonight. Her mother raised her left eyebrow. “Tell me.” Chloe groaned. “Not the eyebrow. Anything but the eyebrow.

” All the Garland children lived in terror of The Eyebrow. Her mother had the most articulate left eyebrow in humanity. With the slightest arch or tilt, The Eyebrow could convey annoyance, doubt, interrogation, displeasure, or I-will-deal-with-you-later reproach. Tonight, The Eyebrow’s demand was simple: Confess. “I’m four-and-twenty years old,” Chloe said. “That doesn’t work on me anymore.” The Eyebrow arched with suspicion. “Truly, Mama. I’m immune to it now,” she lied. The Eyebrow snapped flat.

A warning. Don’t lie to your mother. Chloe couldn’t take it any longer. “Very well! I surrender. Just stop.” Mama relented with a small, superior smile. “It’s like witchcraft.” Chloe shuddered. “How do you do that?” “You’d have the talent too, if you’d borne eleven children. Can you imagine raising up eleven children with actual words? I would have lost my ability to speak a decade ago.

” She tapped Chloe’s wrist with her folded fan. “Now. Tell me what you’ve done this time.” “Nothing so terrible. I may have invented a fictional family tradition.” “Which is…?” “I told Lord Cheverell that the Garland men wear holiday waistcoats to our Christmas Eve party.” “Go on.” “And I told him that if he didn’t wear a Christmas waistcoat, he’d be the only gentleman in attendance without one. So if he comes tonight, expect him to appear looking…festive.” “Oh.

Is that all? For a moment, I worried you’d done something truly shocking.” Mama peered out the window. “I believe that’s his carriage in the drive.” Chloe’s heart beat a little faster. There it was again, that delicious frisson of anticipation. She knew the instant he entered the hall. Quiet swept through the room like a wave. To a one, the guests abandoned their drinks and gossipy conversations and simply stared. Lord Cheverell was a vision. The kind of vision that might result from overindulging in plum pudding and sherry, then spinning in a circle a dozen times fast.

He was handsome, of course. He was always handsome, in the most elegant, intimidating way. Tall stature, dark hair, piercing gaze, noble features sculpted by centuries of aristocratic breeding. But tonight his fine looks weren’t the subject of attention. It was the waistcoat. The waistcoat had everyone dazzled. Also shocked, perplexed, and perhaps a bit nauseous. Embroidered reindeer pranced across his chest, surrounded by silver beads arranged in lopsided snowflakes. Gold braid edged the lapels of the vest. Appliqued mistletoe covered any remaining empty space, complete with red chenille pompons for berries.

Oh, and there was no neglecting her favorite part: the tassels. Shining, swishing, drapery-sized tassels. Chloe pressed a hand to her mouth to keep from laughing. Here it was, after weeks of waiting: the best Christmas present imaginable. No one could be serious in that waistcoat. Not even Justin String-of-Obsequious-Middle-Names Montague, the fifth Earl of Cheverell. Once he realized he’d been made an unwitting party to a joke, the man’s impenetrable shell would have to crack. His stern demeanor must be vanquished. She expected him to bow gamely, perhaps even chuckle. Everyone would have a good laugh.

They’d appreciate his sporting nature, welcome him with brandy, and this incident would become one more bit of the family Christmas lore. She’d apparently misjudged. No one in the room dared to laugh. Instead of softening, the earl held himself as stiffly as ever, looking over the assembled guests with a gaze so cold and penetrating, it froze the room. They might need ice skates for the dancing. And then he locked eyes with Chloe. She was accustomed to his annoyance or disapproval. This was different. There was something ominous in his gaze. Her whole body prickled with awareness, and her pulse thundered in her ears.

Lord Cheverell knew what she’d done. He was furious about it. And he meant to exact revenge. She gulped the remainder of her punch in one go. Thank heavens for the musicians. They struck up a bit of light music, announcing the imminent start of the dancing. The spell was broken, and the guests began to talk amongst themselves again. When Lord Cheverell approached their corner, Mama greeted him warmly. “We are so glad you’ve joined us, Lord Cheverell. You are always welcome.

” He made a bow and offered his greetings, as proper—the man was nothing if not proper—and then he turned to Chloe and extended his gloved hand. “Miss Chloe. Will you do me the honor of this dance?” Oh dear. What were those excuses other ladies used to avoid dancing with a gentleman? Weariness, feeling faint, a turned ankle… “Look over there, giant spiders”? She’d never bothered to practice them. She danced every time she was asked. Mama took the empty cup from her hand, freeing her to accept. She could not refuse his invitation. She cautiously laid her hand in his. His fingers clamped over hers like a vise. As he led her to the dance floor, he jingled with each step.

Good Lord, the bells. She’d forgotten she’d sewn them into the lining. The dance was one of those country dances that drew a couple together, then parted them to circle or curtsy to another, and so on. Conversation was possible, but only in short volleys. “Why so churlish, Lord Cheverell? “You know very well the reason. Or shall I spell it out for you in glittering beads?” Chloe turned to curtsy to the gentleman at her corner. It was a brief reprieve from Lord Cheverell and his resentment. Alas, the escape was temporary. “Someone informed me,” Cheverell said in a low, dark voice, “that this event was an annual Garland family tradition. The ugly Christmas waistcoat party.

” “No doubt it will become a tradition now.” “I was told there were prizes.” Chloe forced a light smile. “Well, you’ve come first place. No competition whatsoever.” His only reply was a clenched jaw. She studied him. It would seem a bit of emotion was seeping through the seams of that horrid waistcoat, even if it wasn’t the sort she’d anticipated. She couldn’t puzzle him out, however, because she was too busy sorting through unexpected feelings of her own. He led her through the dance with impressive physical command.

His motions were not merely elegant, but strong. He had presence. He also smelled good. Very good. “Come now, laugh just a little. It will do you good. It’s Christmas. Joy to the world, deck the halls. Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” “I bear nothing but goodwill toward men.

My ill will is reserved for one particular lady.” Ouch. “That’s rather severe,” she said. “Even for you.” “You would call me severe?” “With me? Always. You never miss an opportunity to communicate your disapproval of my conduct.” “Well, if your aim was to retaliate by orchestrating my public humiliation, I trust you are well pleased with the results.” “I admit, you have turned a rather satisfying shade of red. However, humiliation was not my aim.” “I cannot imagine you having any other purpose.

” “Of course you can’t,” Chloe muttered as she turned a circle. The man couldn’t imagine anything playful or humorous. How did a grown human reach that state? At some point, Nature would dictate, he must have been a child. No matter how classically fine his looks, he hadn’t emerged fully formed from a block of Italian marble. He’d had the benefit of all the education English society offered its gentlemen and withheld from its ladies. And yet apparently no one had taught him to laugh. It was pitiable, really. No, no. She would not feel sorry for him. “It is not as though you have never witnessed my humiliation,” she pointed out.

“In fact, on more than one occasion you have been the source of it.” “On what occasion?” “This past July, for one. Have you forgotten pushing me into a pond?” He bristled. “I did not push you into a pond. It was a reflecting pool, and you stumbled.” How dare he point out the truth. “But you did not catch me.” “I was six paces away.” “A true gentleman would have made a heroic leap. Or at least dived in to rescue me.

” “Rescue you? The water was ankle-deep. You were not injured.” “You couldn’t have known that. Not at first. You left it to my sisters to ascertain my state and pull me out of the water. You kept your distance, as if you couldn’t be bothered.” He made a derisive noise. “Believe me, I was bothered. I kept my distance out of propriety.” “Why should it be improper to offer your arm? Because you are an earl, and I am a mere gentleman’s daughter?” “No.

” He pulled her close. His voice sank to an intensely masculine growl. “Because I am a man, and you are a woman. And when a woman wearing a thin summer frock drenches herself in a reflecting pool, she might as well be”—the final strains of the dance twirled them to a stop —“naked.” He looked down at her, still holding her hand tightly in his. His lips tugged into the smug hint of a smile. “Well, Miss Garland. Now you are a rather satisfying shade of red.” Upon releasing her, he bowed. Chloe forgot to curtsy.

She could only stare at him, stunned. The look in his eyes was… Well, she didn’t know what it was, but it had nothing to do with propriety. “Kindly make my excuses to your parents,” he said. “I must be going.” “So soon? You’ve only just arrived.” “Yes.” He tugged his cuffs straight. “Tonight is not the occasion I thought it would be. Apparently, I misread the invitation.” What did that mean? Chloe was left standing in the center of the ballroom without an answer.

He walked away

.

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