The Heart of Christmas

The Heart of Christmas
A Maiden Lane Christmas Special
(and prequel to Duke of Pleasure)

December 1741


Children, Artemis, the Duchess of Wakefield mused with a small twinge of longing, as she looked around her sitting room, really are the heart of Christmas. Wakefield House’s Blue Sitting Room was decorated for the beginning of the Christmas season. Fresh evergreens were massed on the mantle, making the room smell of winter, and beeswax candles sparkled at every table. Very soon everyone would decamp to the countryside for a proper Christmas celebration—weeks of games and feasting—but in the meantime Artemis had decided to have this little tea party for her friends and their children.

To that end, the children were gathered by the windows overlooking the back gardens, playing and talking. Mary Whitsun, who had grown up in the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, and was now a nursemaid in Lord and Lady Caire’s household, kept careful eye on the smaller toddlers, along with Agnes Trevillion, the niece of Lady Phoebe and Captain Trevillion. The adults were seated in small groupings, enjoying a grand afternoon tea.

“This was such a good idea,” Lady Margaret St. John said at Artemis’s elbow. She held her dish of tea protectively over her rounded tummy, her curling brown hair already coming down in tendrils about her rosy cheeks. “I’m quite looking forward to seeing Godric’s mother and sisters when we make our trip to Laurelwood, but I had wanted to visit with all my friends before disappearing for weeks in the country for the holiday.”

“Yes, indeed,” Temperance Huntington, Lady Caire murmured. She sat across from Lady Margaret and Artemis. Her light brown eyes were fixed on her husband, across the room, attempting to dissuade their dark-haired daughter from reaching for a delicate china shepherdess on a side table. “We leave for Caire’s country estate tomorrow with my mother-in-law as well.”

Artemis forked up a bit of the fish pie on her plate—one of Cook’s specialties—but hastily set it down again when the morsel neared her nose. Her stomach had been sensitive lately. She took a sip of tea instead. “Where is the Caire estate? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard tell.”

Temperance turned to her. “In Oxfordshire. It’s a lovely house, but it holds sad memories for Caire and his mother since it’s where his little sister died as a child. Though, I do think it’s been easier for them the last several Christmases.”

“Naturally.” Artemis’s lips curved wistfully as she glanced again at Lord Caire and his daughter, Annalise. The little girl, now successfully distracted from the china shepherdess by a piece of cake, had been named after Caire’s long-mourned sister. “Darling Annalise must make things much brighter.”

Temperance shook her head in mock exasperation. “Much brighter but also much more disorganized, I’m afraid.”

Artemis thought she wouldn’t mind a bit of disorganization.

“Will Bridget be joining you this year?” Lady Phoebe asked.

There was a sudden silence.

Artemis glanced sharply at Phoebe. The younger woman sat next to Temperance, her pretty hazel eyes wide—and quite blind.

Bridget, Lord Caire’s recently discovered bastard sister, was married to the Duke of Montgomery, a quite loathsome gentleman who had, for his own obscure reasons, repeatedly kidnapped Phoebe before her marriage to Captain James Trevillion.

Temperance cleared her throat delicately. “I don’t believe so.” She shot a glance to the grouping of chairs a little ways away where Lady Caire sat with some of the gentlemen, including Lord Caire. “I understand that she and His Grace will shortly be sailing for Istanbul.”

“Indeed?” Phoebe raised her eyebrows. She, too, had a growing belly. Discreet inquiry had revealed that her babe was due sometime in March. Captain Trevillion was seated with the gentlemen, but his pale blue eyes kept constant watch on his young wife. “Is that why they didn’t attend today?”

Artemis opened her mouth, attempting to think of a reply, when she was interrupted.

“Who didn’t attend?” The impertinent query came from the large male suddenly looming at Artemis’s elbow—her twin brother Apollo. Even now, after nearly a year and a half, his voice still rasped from the damage done to him in Bedlam by those evil guards. “Eve and Asa Makepeace? They won’t be back from their honeymoon for another month.” He frowned on a thought. “Unless, of course, Asa goes mad from the thought of me managing his theater and comes galloping back to London.”

“Eve would look on that very unkindly,” Lily, Apollo’s wife said, strolling over and taking his arm. “Asa would be better served to just keep galloping past Harte’s Folly and right on to the American Colonies if he should abandon her on their honeymoon.”

“I did not say he would do this thing,” Apollo assured her.

“I know that.” Lily rolled her eyes. “Asa might be obsessed with his pleasure garden, but Eve is his heart—anyone can see that. He’ll not be coming back without her.”

“How are you finding running the theater?” Artemis asked. Since Apollo had taken over Harte’s Folly he’d been so busy she hadn’t had time to see either him or Lily.

“I had no notion how unreasonable some erm…theater folk are,” Apollo said, casting a wary look at his wife. Lily was a former actress.

“My poor lord,” Lily said, patting her husband’s arm. “Actors are daft, the lot of them. And of course we have the musicians, dancers, tumblers and everyone else to deal with as well.”

“I do not understand how Asa does it without running mad through the streets,” Apollo said very seriously. He brightened. “But Indio has enjoyed playing in the theater and garden again with Daffodil. I fear the dancers may be spoiling them both.”

“Oh, they’re being spoiled all right,” Lily said darkly. “I caught Polly, one of our dancers, feeding them an entire mince pie the other day.”

Artemis cleared her throat. “Well, tis the Christmas season.”

Apollo winced. “Daffodil spewed in a corner of the dressing room not long after.”

“Ah.” Artemis hid a smile. Daffodil was the pretty little Italian Greyhound that was Indio’s closest friend.

“That’s mine!”

The boyish shout turned heads.

“Oh, goodness,” Lily muttered under her breath. “Do excuse me.”

Both she and Apollo headed in the direction of the children’s corner where Indio appeared to be engaged in a fierce argument with Christopher, Isobel and Winter Makepeace’s adopted son. Winter Makepeace was also striding toward the boys. Indio’s dark head was bent to Christopher’s nearly white blond head, the object of their discussion a painted wooden horse. But even before the descending adults had arrived, the boys seemed to have resolved their differences, for they sat back and exchanged grins.

“I still don’t quite understand how they do that,” a voice murmured at her side.

Artemis turned to see Isabel Makepeace, elegantly attired in a stunning crimson and black silk brocade gown. She was still watching as her husband bent over Christopher. “Children are so quick to quarrel, and then as quick to make up again.” She turned and caught Artemis’s gaze, smiling ruefully. “Winter seems to understand them within his bones, without thought, whilst I must stumble about making mistake after mistake before finally arriving at the sensible solution to whatever the problem of the day is.” She glanced fondly at her husband again. “Perhaps in another twenty years of running the home I will be half as proficient with children as he.”

Artemis opened her mouth to reply, but the entrance of another guest distracted her.

Well, two guests.

“I trust we have not arrived belatedly?” Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery stood in the threshold of her drawing room, one hand on the head of a gold cane, the other arm held out so that his duchess, Bridget, could rest her hand on it. The Duke of Montgomery was a man who was so handsome he was nearly beautiful—and he knew it. Today he wore a sky-blue suit that shimmered in the candlelight, highlighting the silver embroidery on cuffs and pocket flaps. A silver brocade waistcoat completed the outfit. The duke’s blue eyes—nearly the same color as his suit—were mischievous.

In contrast Bridget’s expression was studiously neutral. She wore a lovely flame colored dress with a cream underskirt that perfectly highlighted her hair—black save for the single pure white streak over her left eye.

Out of the corner of her eye, Artemis saw Maximus, her beloved husband stand.

Hurriedly, she rose as well. “I’m so glad that you could come, Bridget,” she said, moving swiftly to link her arm with Maximus’s.

Her husband shot her a speculative glance from under his brows.

The Duke of Montgomery opened his mouth, but it was Bridget who answered her. “Thank you for inviting us.” Her voice was calm and low, though she must know most of the room did not look upon her husband with any favor.

But then again the former Bridget Crumb had once been the most sought after housekeeper in London. Such a woman was not the type to be easily dismayed.

Nevertheless, this was Artemis’s home and Bridget—and the awful Duke of Montgomery—were her invited guests.

Artemis deliberately stepped forward with Maximus, holding out her free hand to the other woman.

Something in Bridget’s face softened a fraction before Artemis leaned forward and touched her cheek to hers. “Welcome to Wakefield House.”

Artemis pulled back and thought she saw the sparkle of moisture in Bridget’s eye just before she blinked it away.

“Montgomery,” Maximus said, his voice utterly without inflection.

“Your Grace,” the Duke of Montgomery replied, with a flourishing bow. He straightened and both men locked gazes.

Artemis inhaled and pasted a smile on her face. “Do come in! I think Cook has outdone herself with the mincemeat tarts and of course she’s very proud of her fish pie.” She stepped between the gentlemen, taking Bridget’s hand. “I know your family has been anxious to see you.”

“Your Grace is most kind,” Bridget said, smiling serenely, “but my husband has something he wishes to present to Lady Phoebe first if he may?”

“He does?” Artemis asked weakly.

“What?” Maximus snapped, stepping to the side around Artemis.

“What is this about?” asked a third voice, and Artemis turned to see Lady Hero, Maximus’s elder sister. Lady Hero stood tall and slim, her red hair blazing, beside her husband, Lord Griffin. Her gray eyes were narrowed on the Duke of Montgomery.

Lady Hero was very fond of her sister Lady Phoebe.

The duke smiled charmingly—at his wife—before bowing to Lady Hero. “It seems I needs must make amends. Therefore with your permission, my lady?”

Lady Hero eyed him a moment longer before nodding infinitesimally and stepping aside.

The Duke of Montgomery winked at her and strolled over to where Lady Phoebe still sat on the settee. Behind her was Captain Trevillion, his hands on his wife’s shoulders. The Captain eyed the duke without any show of friendliness, but he made no move to stop the Duke of Montgomery from dropping to one knee before Phoebe.

“My lady,” drawled the duke, “I have it upon the highest authority that the wrong I have done you is irreparable and yet, quixotically, I must somehow attempt to make amends for it. My judge softens under no argument, admits no appeal, and is without mercy, and so here I am.”

Phoebe smiled a little, tilting her head. “Indeed? Your judge sounds quite stern.”

“Oh, she is,” the duke replied, sounding oddly serious. He turned and made a gesture to a footman standing in the doorway, dressed in the Montgomery livery colors. The footman strode forward with a blue and white Chinese pot, inside of which was a…plant.

Artemis frowned in confusion.

As the footman walked through the sitting room the most intense perfume filled the air. Heavy and sweet, but alluring and lingering as well, hinting of warm, languid nights and tropical sunsets. Artemis lifted her head, following the scent, and noticed that her guests were doing the same.

The footman made the Duke of Montgomery’s side and the duke carefully took the pot. He held it out to Phoebe. “This is for you, as a small token of my regret in having hurt you.”

Phoebe leaned a little forward and touched the plant. The leaves were a dark glossy green, ovate and pointed, and the plant had four or five white flowers that looked almost like opened roses. She inhaled and smiled. “What is it?”

The duke’s beautiful lips curved. “Oh, an interesting specimen I happened to come across.”

Beside Artemis, Bridget snorted under her breath.

The Duke of Montgomery continued. “The gentleman who sold it to me said it came from the south of China. They call it zeezi there, I’m told.”

Phoebe raised her brows. “And here? What do our botanist call it here?”

“They have no name for it,” the duke said gently. “As they’ve not yet found it. You are the first to have this flower in England.”

Artemis inhaled as tears pricked her eyes. Phoebe loved her scented garden. No other gift could possibly have been as perfect as this one.

Phoebe seemed to think so as well. “I don’t know if I can forgive you yet, Your Grace, but I’ll gladly accept your gift as a start to our friendship.”

The duke bowed his golden head. “That is all I ask for my lady.”

“Then let us shake on this new accord,” said Phoebe and held out her hand.

He took it, but instead of shaking her hand, he bowed over it, kissing her knuckles respectfully—although Artemis saw Captain Trevillion’s eyes narrow at the movement.

“Thank you, my lady,” the Duke of Montgomery said, freeing her hand.

She smiled at him. “I confess myself slightly astonished at this wondrous change in your personality, Your Grace. Has the leopard been tamed by love?”

His glanced sharply up at her, his smile sly, and Artemis felt Bridget abruptly stiffen beside her. “A wild leopard is never tame, my lady, surely you know this. No pretty golden chains or silken cords will ever bind him.”

“Then why?” she asked.

He turned his head and met Bridget’s gaze and he sobered. “Because where a burning angel leads a leopard will follow, if he’s not a fool, and lady, I am many, many things, but I am no fool.”

He stood then and strode to his wife, taking her hand and bending over it in an entirely different manner than he had Phoebe’s. He pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Bridget’s palm and Artemis sighed.

She had the feeling every woman in the room did as well.

Maximus, looming at her shoulder, muttered something that sounded very much like “Ass.”

The Duke of Montgomery looked up as if he’d heard Maximus’s word and grinned. “Ah, and I have something as well to give my hostess.” He nodded to another Montgomery footman.

The man came forward with a jeweled box, the size of a man’s head.

Maximus growled.

Artemis felt her eyes widen. The box looked very old with pearls and rubies embedded around the outside. It must be worth a fortune. She darted a glance at Bridget, but her friend was looking confused.

The duke turned to her, his wide mouth twitching, and raised his voice. “A week ago I was honored to host my sister’s and Mr. Asa Makepeace’s nuptial breakfast. During those festivities I was pleased to present many of the families here with lasting companions.”

From the children’s corner a small voice shouted, “Kitty!”

Lord Griffin groaned. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe—”

Bridget murmured rather anxiously, “Val…”

He flashed a mercurial, dangerous grin. “But it seems I was remiss.” He turned and opened the lid of the jeweled box the footman still held.

Inside came a small “ow.”

As if drawn by a piped piper the children were suddenly crowded about the Duke of Montgomery, chanting, “Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!”

He lifted out a marmalade kitten, its green eyes comically sad as it dangled from his fingers.

“Can I have it?” cried Annalise, dancing on her toes.

“No indeed,” the duke said sternly to her. “I already gave you a kitten. And besides. This one is for the baby.”

And he set the marmalade kitten in Artemis’s arms, his blue eyes dancing madly.

Artemis’s mouth dropped open. How–?

“Val!” shrieked Bridget.

Maximus was suddenly in front of Artemis, enclosing her in their own little world, his eyes dark and intense and so full of love. “Is it true?” he asked. “Diana, are you…?”

“Yes.” She swallowed, trying to say something more, but really, what more was there to say?

And there in front of the children and their family and friends he took her into his arms and kissed her quite thoroughly and very, very improperly.

“Mrow!” protested the kitten when finally he allowed her breath.

Then a grinning Hero and Phoebe were hugging Artemis, and Apollo had tears in his eyes, and everyone was clapping.

The Duke of Montgomery had evidently come prepared with presents for the children, and was handing them out along with far, far too many boiled sweets. Artemis only hoped no one was sick before they went home. But she didn’t really care. The children were giggling and running about madly with parents trying to keep them from tipping over teacups and plates. Maximus was grinning proudly, and Bridget was shyly talking to Temperance and Lady Caire.

Artemis blinked back tears. And next Christmas? Next Christmas they’d have their own baby to bring joy and chaos to the celebration.

She couldn’t wait.

Maximus bent his head to hers. “Merry Christmas, my love.”

Have you read Duke of Pleasure yet?