It's the most wonderful time of the year, and one fascinating feline offers the most glorious gift of all. . .
To help his daughter Joy recover after the death of her mother, Justin Wingate brings her to a Christmas party. But the only ones to whom the girl will speak are a tiny white kitten—and bereaved widow Meghan Kenwick. Now it's up to an angelic ball of fur to mend ties, restore faith—and bring soulmates together. . .
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By Wilma Counts
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2001 Wilma Counts
All rights reserved.
Justin Wingate heaved a sigh and ran a hand over his face to rest his chin in his palm. Across from him, in his London drawing room, a concerned look on her face, sat his sister-in-law, the Marchioness of Everleigh. "I am willing to try anything, Irene. Anything."
"What did the doctor say?"
"They. There have been several here to examine her. She responds to instructions so long as they do not require speech. The doctors see no reason for her not to talk—and it has been a year now."
"Children often absorb things within themselves. She was only—what, three-and-a-half years old?—when her mother died." Irene looked thoughtful. "In the convoluted way children sometimes view events, Joy may blame herself for her mother's death."
"You think a child having fewer than five years understands death?" Justin's tone was merely curious.
"They understand far more than most adults surmise. She may not fully realize what happened, but she knows her mama has gone away and will not return."
"Yes, I have told her as much. And I have told her her mama is in a pleasant place now with no more pain."
"But all Joy knows is that her mother is gone, and she misses her. And she may think she did something to cause that."
"How did you get to be such a perceptive lady?" His tone was teasing, but admiring. "Who would have thought when my brother was courting the Season's Incomparable—lo! these many years ago!—that pretty Irene Hamlin would turn into such a fountain of wisdom?"
She laughed. "I swear, Justin, if you start counting the years, I shall box your ears. But surely having produced five children of my own qualifies me a bit."
"More than a bit. But back to my problem. What am I to do? I have heard of a doctor in Switzerland ..."
"Before you go haring off to the Continent for Lord knows how long, let us try exposing her to my wild hellions for more than the usual short visit. We shall put Joy in the bedchamber shared by my girls and just let all the children play freely much of die time. But mind, Justin, it may take a while."
"I could not simply desert her for any period of time." Justin knew very well that neither he nor Joy could bear such a parting. Joy might not talk, but those little arms wound around her papa's neck at bedtime bespoke volumes.
"Of course not! I am suggesting you both come to our winter house party at Everleigh. Most of the guests will not arrive until after the first week of December, but several are coming earlier. So you come then, too."
"It may have escaped your notice, my lady, but those of us who did not inherit great titles must work for a living."
"Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. Everleigh is only two days' ride from London—in a comfortable coach. Less than that if need be. I seriously doubt there is much that you cannot handle from the country. And there are such things as the mail—and couriers—you know."
He threw up his hands in mock defeat. "Very well. We shall come in November."
"And stay till Parliament opens and we must return to the city?"
"If you do not tire of us before then."
"Should we tire of you, we could just shut you up in the North Tower—you, not Joy—with our resident ghost."
"It would not work. She appears only to children. Besides which, I thought she had not made an appearance in years," he said.
"Nor has she. Not really. Though every once in a while we find books or toys or things on a dresser have been rearranged. The third marchioness of Everleigh must have been a most fastidious housekeeper—unlike her latest successor!"
"Ah, but very like the latest to fill that role, she loved children."
"Yes." She paused. "But I think it will be other children—not the spectral Lady Aetherada—who might affect a change in your daughter."
"I hope so."
Irene had called at his request to discuss, once again, what he might do to help his little girl to a more normal existence. She now stood, gathered up her gloves, and prepared to leave. She settled her bonnet on her carefully coiffed blond hair and gave him a long look. "Two more things, dear brother."
"What might those be?"
"You must not expect a miracle. Joy may not respond to other children any more than she has to all your other remedies. It is possible that she will—given enough time. We shall have to leave it in God's hands."
"I know." He grinned. "And God knows very well that patience is not exactly one of my virtues."
She chuckled as she drew on her kidskin gloves. "No, I would not say it is." She paused a moment, then said, "You know, you might think about providing Joy a new mama."
His answer was guarded. "I have considered that possibility...."
Her brows lifted in surprise. "Have you now? Well, there will be some very eligible females at our house party."
"Whom you just happened to have on your guest list, eh? You are too transparent by half, my dear."
"I have found," she said in the tone of one making a profound announcement, "that people—especially you infernal men—often need to be nudged in the right direction."
"Well, just see you do not nudge too forcefully. Mind you, I am not averse to remarrying, but neither am I in any great hurry to do so."
"Oh, very well." She showed mild impatience as they moved toward the door. He opened it for her and was about to bid her farewell when she turned back. "One more thing, Justin. Meghan Kenwick will be among our houseguests."
"Will she now?" He tried for a neutral tone. "Is she aware that I have been invited, too?"
"I told her you would probably be there for at least part of the time. After all, even when Belinda was alive, you always came to us for Christmas."
"Well, if Mrs. Kenwick can bear up, I suppose I can." Irene's brown eyes twinkled. "You know? Meghan said almost exactly the same thing!"
In another part of London, the subject of this discourse sat in her own drawing room and voiced second thoughts about accepting the invitation to the house party at Everleigh.
"Why did I not just tell Irene I had made other plans?" Meghan asked.
Her cousin Eleanor laughed. "Perhaps because you know very well she would see right through such a lie."
"She would at that. She was a full two years ahead of me in school, but even then she always seemed in tune with what others thought or felt."
"Still, if you do not want to go to Everleigh, I am quite sure you may join me in Kent. My sister would welcome you most effusively."
"It is not that I do not want to go. I do. Truly, I do."
"Well, then ...?"
"I am not sure I can deal with Irene's children. Her twins are eight—the same age Stephen would have been."
Setting aside the embroidery she had been working on and tucking away a wisp of soft gray hair, Eleanor gave Meghan a penetrating look. "Perhaps the children are just what you need. It has been well over a year since Stephen and his father died in that accident. Do you not think it time—beyond time—you rejoined the world of the living?"
"Well, yes ..." Meghan, accustomed as she was to her cousin's plain speaking, did not take offense. "And I have begun to go about. I put off my mourning clothes several weeks ago—much to the dismay of Lady Kenwick."
"Your mother-in-law would find something to disapprove of if you had worn black for a decade—or—or joined a convent!"
Meghan smiled. "I suppose you are right."
"This party is the perfect setting for your return to society. The marchioness will have invited people that you know. You should have a wonderful time."
"Umm ... maybe."
Eleanor ignored her hesitation. "Besides, you may meet a fine gentleman at such a gathering."
"Oh, Nell, not you, too," Meghan wailed softly.
"Not me, too—what?"
"Why is everyone bent on seeing me rewed? Even my brother Richard sends letters from Canada extolling the merits of such a step. I am sure Richard put that amiable captain—you know the one—up to calling on me."
"Captain Hillary, you mean? Well, and what of it? Your brother is simply trying to look out for your interests."
"I have no interest in marrying again—ever," Meghan said tartly.
"Surely you do not mean that."
"I do mean it, Nell. Truly, I do."
"But ... you are so young...."
Meghan smiled. "At nine-and-twenty, I would hardly be considered a treasure on the marriage mart, even were I inclined to offer myself there. However, I am not so inclined." Lord, no, she was not so inclined, Meghan thought, remembering vividly the pain associated with her marriage.
"But, but," Eleanor repeated, "what else is there for a woman in our society? Young widows are subjected to such gossip ... Her voice trailed off.
"People may gossip as they please. I doubt they will find anything of substance to condemn in my rather dull affairs. Besides"—Meghan smiled at her companion—"I have you—and luckily, I am not one of those unfortunate females who must marry."
"What shall you do? I always assumed once you were out of mourning—"
"Do? Why, what I do now. My work with the historical society, an occasional social outing, and maybe some traveling. I would dearly love to go to Rome!"
"Oh, Meghan, you cannot just shut yourself away with old Celtic and Roman artifacts."
Meghan laughed outright at the despair in her companion's tone. "Why not? I enjoy my work. And with a name like 'Meghan Minerva,' who better to deal with Celts and Romans?"
"What was your father thinking when he saddled a tiny baby with such a name?"
"Well ..." Meghan pretended to give the matter weighty consideration. "Perhaps it was his love for his Welsh mother and his love of antique Rome?"
"Be that as it may ..." Eleanor waved her hand dismissively, picked up her embroidery again, and returned to her original train of thought. "I still say there is sure to be an interesting group of people assembled at that house party, and you should not think twice about accepting Lady Everleigh's invitation."
"I have accepted it. But—"
"I think I told you Justin Wingate will be there, too."
"So? What has that to do with your decision to go?"
Meghan shrugged, feeling somewhat sheepish. "I am a bit embarrassed about seeing him again. I mean, after all, I very nearly accused him of causing the accident."
"Yes, so you told me. However, Lord Justin is a gentleman, and he surely understood you were overset at the time. Besides, he must have been occupied with his own problems very soon afterward."
"His wife's illness, you mean?" Meghan recalled that Wingate had lost his wife scarcely six months after the boating accident that claimed her husband and son.
"Yes. So tragic that was."
"The fact remains, I behaved irrationally and I shall probably have to apologize to him."
She remembered the scene very well.
And that her animosity toward Lord Justin had its roots in events beyond the boating accident....
Meghan Minerva Godwin had been luckier than many another daughter of a country vicar. Her maternal grandfather being the Earl of Falmouth had ensured her a place in society, but her upbringing had not prepared her to be swept off her feet by the handsome, charming Burton Kenwick. Caught up in the wonder of her first love, Meghan had simply ignored the possibility that one of the things Kenwick—heir to a mere baronetage—found attractive about her was her grandfather's title.
The marriage had been happy enough the first year or so. Kenwick was attentive and thoughtful and took genuine delight in his new wife—and she in him. Burton seemed to have little in common with her friends and he thoroughly disapproved of any of her male friends. Gradually, she lost contact with many people she had once enjoyed.
The biggest disappointment in their first years was their failure to have a child. There had been a miscarriage before Stephen. Kenwick had not said anything, but she sensed his blaming her, and certainly his mother had made no secret of where she ascribed the blame.
Then Stephen had arrived. At first—other than taking pride in proof of his virility—Burton had ignored the child. But once the baby became a little boy, he began to command his father's interest. After a terrible fall, Stephen showed little enthusiasm for riding, and even less for killing animals on a hunt. Burton accused her of making a mama's boy of his son. In that last year, Burton had insisted that the boy accompany him on strictly male outings. The boating expedition had been yet another attempt to "make a man" of the boy who had then been scarcely seven years old.
Wedded bliss had begun to sour after the failure of the first pregnancy. But in the way of many a ton marriage, they had muddled along. She remembered clearly the day she knew for sure her husband's interest in other women went beyond idle flirtations at every social event. At a ball a few months after her son's birth, she became tired of Burton's displays—and the inquisitive looks cast her way for a reaction. She had retreated to a secluded area of the room set aside as the ladies' withdrawing room—an L-shaped chamber—when two women came into the other section.
"Poor Meghan." Meghan recognized the insincere tones of Lady Ardith Ponsonby, who had been given to gossip even as a schoolgirl.
As soon as the other woman responded, Meghan identified Susan Buckley, once a rival for Kenwick's attentions. "True. You know, I saw that fault in Kenwick early on. I wasted little time in discouraging his suit to me."
Feeling trapped, Meghan gritted her teeth. She knew very well that Susan had rather shamelessly chased the then bachelor Kenwick for an entire Season—right up until the announcement of his engagement.
Apparently Lady Ponsonby knew it, too. "Well, it hardly matters when you made such a discovery. Kenwick's affair with la belle Beatrice is beginning to raise eyebrows."
"I fail to see why. There have been any number of others whose beds he has shared since the honeymoon was over—for him, if not for Meghan," Susan said.
"But most of those were light skirts from the Covent Garden. La belle has a jealous husband."
"Ah, well ... That could prove interesting."
There was the sound of rustling skirts and some more small talk. Meghan was so mortified she just sank further into the elegant chair she occupied and hoped they would not come into her part of the room. To her relief, they did not, but she was left shaken. She knew it was true. All the signs were there, had she admitted to them. Her husband's long absences, his evasiveness, the occasional trace of perfume on his clothing.
His usual—and quite often truthful—explanation for his absences from home were that he was engaged in some sort of sporting or gaming activity with his male friends. Most prominent among these was die powerful, influential Justin Wingate. Meghan knew her husband suffered a profound case of hero worship mixed with envy regarding Wingate. But, truth to tell, Wingate seemed to encourage it, for Burton was forever responding to this or that invitation from Wingate or a Wingate crony. A racing meet. A few days at the Wingate family's hunting box. An evening of cards at the club. And—later—a boating trip.
Hurt and embarrassed by her predicament, Meghan had nevertheless made a determined effort in the weeks after that ball to restore some stability and happiness to her marriage. However, Burton refused to discuss unresolved issues. Indeed, as far as he was concerned, there were no issues to be resolved. The existence of a mistress was not something a gentleman discussed with a wife. And, no, he was not interested in their engaging in more activities together. Furthermore, he insisted she stop associating with that ridiculous historical society. People were beginning to think he—sportsman extraordinaire—was married to some sort of bluestocking.
Excerpted from Christmas Joy by Wilma Counts. Copyright © 2001 Wilma Counts. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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