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'Merry! Merry, they're here! Come quickly!'
From the dining room, where she was supervising the footmen placing another leaf in the long table, Meredyth Well-ingford heard her younger sister's urgent voice summoning her to the entrance hall. 'Coming, Faith!' she called.
A lilt in her step, Meredyth smiled as she walked to the front hall. How she loved the Christmas holidays! The scent of greenery adorning stairs and mantels mingling with the spicy tang of simmering wassail and the mouthwatering smell of roasting meat; mistletoe kissing balls and sharp-edged holly; carols sung around the hearth before the blazing Yule log. But especially she loved having her family at homethe siblings gathered once again under the Wellingford roof, as they had been for all their years growing up.
The first to arrive should be her younger brother Colton, returning from Oxford with his best friend Thomas Mansfell. Since Wellingford was on the way from university to his friend's home farther north, Thomas was a frequent visitor, normally spending a few days with them each time the boys made their way to and from college.
Just as Meredyth met her sister in the entrance hall they heard boots tramping up the front steps, followed by a sharp rap at the wide front door that Twilling, their old butler, hastened to throw open.
'Faith! Merry!' Colton cried, sweeping them into a hug as they ran to greet him. 'How good it is to be home!'
'How good it is to have you,' Merry replied, an ache in her heart as she stepped back to inspect the youngest member of the Wellingford clan. With their mother having never really recovered after his birth, Meredyth and her older sister Sarah had tutored andcared for Colton all his life before he left for school. In place of the smiling, eager boy she'd sent away to Eton now stood a young man taller than she was, his burnished brown locks highlighted with gold, his blue eyes glowing. Her little brother was becoming a handsome young man, Meredyth realised with a shock.
'The hall certainly looks festive,' another masculine voice said, pulling her from her contemplation of Colton.
'Thank you, Thomas, and welcome,' she said, turning her attention to her brother's friend. 'You are planning to stay for a few days before journeying home, I hope? I've had your usual room prepared.'
'Oh, yesdo say you'll be staying!' Faith interposed. 'It is so agreeable to see you again.'
'Good to see you too, brat,' Thomas replied, giving one of Faith's gold curls a careless tug before turning back to Meredyth. 'I should love to rest here for a few days before returning to the rigours of Christmas at the Grange. And I hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of telling my brother Allen that he could stay here as well. He arrived from London to join us on the trip north just as Colton and I were leaving Oxford.'
'Of course he's welcome,' Merydth replied. 'You've spoken of him so often, although we've never met, that I feel I know him already.' Indeed, over the years Thomas had frequently recounted the exploits of the older brother he admiredhis prowess at riding and fencing, his service as a dashing young subaltern carrying messages for Wellington during the Waterloo campaign, the expertise with which he'd taken over the management of the family estates.
Thomas grinned. 'I'm glad! It would have been most embarrassing to have to send him on his way alone! He stopped to see about the horsesbut here he is now.' He gestured to the tall, dark-haired gentleman, whom Twilling was just admitting into the hallway.
'Ladies, may I present my brother Allen? Allen, here are Merry and Faith Wellingfordtwo of Colton's sisters.'
'Miss Faith, Miss Wellingforda pleasure!' the newcomer said, bowing over their hands in turn. Addressing Meredyth, he added, 'I've heard so much about Wellingford from Thomas. I'm delighted to visit at lastif you are certain, as he insisted, that having an extra guest foisted upon you without notice won't be an inconvenience.'
As the gentleman straightened, Meredyth barely suppressed a gasp. Unlike her fledgling brother, Allen Mansfell was a man already fully matureand a strikingly handsome one. Though Meredyth was tall for a lady, the visitor towered over her. Sable brown locks brushed the forehead of his square-jawed, slightly smiling face, while eyes of an arresting green captured her gaze, making her feel for an instant as if the two of them were the only occupants of the hall.
A little disconcerted, she dropped her eyes, letting her appreciative gaze travel from his broad shoulders down a trim torso to muscled thighs, well displayed by his chamois riding breeches. When, cheeks pinkening, she forced her eyes back up to his, a tingle of attraction sizzled through her, stronger than anything she'd felt since the death of her fiancé James, a heartbreak ago.
Shaking her head, she tried to regather her wits. 'If you've listened to what Thomas says about me, I'm surprised you dared venture to the house.'
He laughed, that disturbing, shiver-inducing stare still fixed on her. 'I assure you, everything he recounted was most complimentary.'
'I hope you left us some decorating to do,' Colton said, glancing around the garland-hung hall. 'After being cooped up with musty old books for a term, Thomas and I are keen to ride about the countryside.'
'Faith and I began with the hall, but we haven't progressed much further. We shall have need of you gentlemen to fetch more pine, holly and mistletoe. I thought we'd leave some of the gathering until Sarah, Elizabeth and Clare arrive with their clans. Riding out with you should amuse the children.'
Colton grinned at her. 'That's Merryalready managing everyone and half the group aren't even here yet.'
'She is an excellent manager,' Thomas pointed out. 'Viewing Wellingford now, Allen, you cannot imagine what it looked like when I first visited here! The manor in disrepair, cottages falling into ruin, fields lying fallow. Merry's done a wonderful job of refurbishing the house and farms and seeing the land brought back under cultivation.'
Were Thomas not almost as close to her as a sibling, Meredyth might have been embarrassed by his bald description of the sorry condition of Wellingford at the time of their father's death. As it was, knowing that via Thomas his brother Allen would be fully aware of how badly their gamester father had neglected Colton's inheritance, she felt no need to explain or apologise. 'Time, a competent estate agent and an influx of funds can accomplish a great deal,' she replied.
'Having wrestled with the upkeep of my own papa's properties, Miss Wellingford, I am well aware that it takes much more than those to keep a property in good heart,' Allan said. 'The land and farms we rode through looked exemplary, and this house is lovely. Your hard work is quite evident.'
'Oh, indeed!' Colton interposed. 'Merry is so excellent a manager I believe I shall keep her on when I marry and return to Wellingford for good.'
'I doubt your bride would care for such an arrangement,' Meredyth replied tartly, feeling her face heat. She knew that Colton, with the blunt insensitivity of a young man didn't realise he'd just branded her as his spinster sister, well and truly on the shelf. Which, of course, she wasbut it was not a fact she appreciated his pointing out in front of the very attractive Mr Mansfell.
Though some eight years senior to the seventeen-year-old Thomas, Allen Mansfell was still two years younger than she. Her discomfort intensified by that lowering thought, Meredyth told herself sternly that she must get over the unseemly sensual response he'd sparked in her.
Noting from her expression that her sister was piqued at being left out of the conversationand conscious of a sudden need to escape Allen Mansfell's too-compelling presence Meredyth said, 'Faith, why don't you take our guests into the front parlour? I'll have Twilling bring in some spiced wine while I see about preparing a room.'
Turning to Mr Mansfell, she added, 'I'll have your chamber ready shortly. If there is anything I can do to make your stay at Wellingford more comfortable, please don't hesitate to ask.'
To her surprise, Allen took her hand and bowed over it. 'I'm sure you will make me comfortable indeed,' he murmured, the warmth of his voice and the heat of his gloved hand sending another little shock through her.
Hastily withdrawing her tingling fingers, Meredyth curtseyed and turned away, acutely conscious of his gaze upon her back as she ascended the stairs.
Escaping from his view down the hall, Meredyth proceeded to the guest wing to inspect the room she meant to assign Allen, wishing to determine if anything more than fresh linens would be needed. As her gaze lingered on the large high bed, she recalled Mr Mansfell's velvet-voiced remark about how comfortable she would make him. A surprisingly intense flush of heat suffused her body.
She was being ridiculous, attributing to his idle remark an innuendo a gentleman would never direct towards a gently born spinster. It was bad enough that she'd blushed like a schoolgirl under his gaze. She'd best get hold of herself around him before she did something that alerted him to the effect he had upon her. The thought of him realising it and reacting with distasteor, even worse, pitywas too humiliating to contemplate.
Fortunately he would only be at Wellingford for a few days. With the rest of the family arriving at any time now, she'd be too busy overseeing meals, lodgings and entertainment for her sisters, their spouses and their children to reflect on the mesmerising effect of a pair of vivid green eyes, or the quivering in her belly produced by a handsome face and a virile physique.
It wasn't as if she'd encountered no attractive men in the years since her engagement had ended. What was it about Allen Mansfell that sparked her body to a sensual awareness she'd thought submerged for good after James's death?
The dull ache that had replaced the first searing pain of losing her fiancé throbbed in her chest. Swallowing hard, she drifted to the window, staring sightlessly down at the winter garden as the memories overtook her.
How in love they'd been! How vividly she recalled the excitement of kissing himthe way she'd felt as if she were melting from the inside out when his tongue caressed hers and his strong hands fondled her breasts. Not for the first time she regretted the sense of honour and responsibility that had made them curtail those thrilling explorations short of complete fulfilment.
They'd have all the time in the world to enjoy each other when he returned from his posting in India, James had promised as he gently pushed her away. Drawing a finger over her kiss-swollen lips, he'd pledged to pleasure every inch of her once she was his bride, when they need no longer fear that their joining might create a child.
That last night before he'd left she'd been temptedoh, so temptedto draw him back into her embrace, to rub her breasts against his chest, fit her body around the hardness in his breeches and coax his lips open, touching and teasing until his control broke and he took her then and there down the path to ecstasy. Only the knowledge that conceiving his child would mean disaster had stopped her.
Faced now with the probability that she'd never bear a child of her own, she wasn't so sure she'd made the right choice.
It wasn't that she'd set her face against marriage. Of course for the first year or so after losing James she'd not thought it possible she would ever wish to wed anyone else, but time had worn away that certainty as it had muted her grief. In the intervening years the necessity of remaining at Wellingford to tend her dying mother, followed by a succession of other needs and duties, had kept her here, far from the ballrooms of London where she might have found another love.
Not that it was completely impossible that she might yet marry. She'd go to London with Faith in the spring, accompany her little sister to all the events of the Marriage Mart. But by then she'd be more than ten years older than her sister and the other girls making their bows, she would likely be consigned to wearing caps and sitting with the dowagers.
Besides, unlike many of the maidens soon to join Faith in the drawing rooms of society, Meredyth cherished no dreams of wedding for wealth or title. She'd already sidestepped the rich neighbour who'd come wooing, wishing to join her dowry lands with his. And gently rebuffed an old family frienda widowed viscount looking for a new mama for his clan. Possessed of a valued place among her family, a budding brood of nieces and nephews to spoil, land and a dower house in which to live once Colton brought home a bride to be the new mistress of Wellingford, she would not give her heart, her worldly possessions and her future to a husband in exchange for anything less than a love as powerful as that she'd felt for James.
Turning to give the bed one last lingering glance, Meredyth sighed and walked out. Despite Allen Mansfell's ability to make her senses zing, demonstrating that passion burned within her still, for a lady as long in the tooth as Meredyth Wellingford, finding true love again would take a miracle.
Savouring a glass of spiced wine in the parlour below, Allen Mansfell propped an elbow against the mantel and looked on indulgently as Miss Faith Wellingford triedwith no success to flirt with his brother Thomas, who alternately teased and ignored her while discussing with Colton a proposed hunting expedition for the morrow.
A pretty enough child, Miss Faith resembled her older sister Elizabeth, said to be the beauty of family, who'd recently married his friend Hal Waterman. With her lovely face and artless charm, Miss Faith would probably have little problem finding a suitable husband next spring when, as she had earnestly informed him, she'd be making her debut.
At the thought, Allen suppressed a quiver of distaste. Next spring would probably find him back in London as well. Though after Susanna's faithlessness part of him recoiled at the thought of ever offering his hand and name to another lady. Once his initial hurt and fury had abated, he had recognised that the reason he'd first sought her outa desire to marry, settle down on his estate and delight his mama by providing her with grandchildrenwould propel him back to Marriage Mart again. Not that he had any intention this time of risking his heart.
Unfortunately the London Season provided the most convenient and comprehensive gathering of maidens of suitable breeding and lineage from which a gentleman might find a wife. Though it was ludicrous to think of choosing an infant like Faith.