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 suffers 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 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.”
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