Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
Author:Grace Burrowes


“Sophie. Why aren’t you at the Christmas revels?”

She stared at Vim for so long he thought perhaps she hadn’t heard him. But then a sigh went out of her, and she seemed to grow smaller where she stood.

“I’m fetching Kit to you.”

What? “Why would you do such a thing?”

Her smile was wan, not a smile he’d seen on her before, and it tore at his heart.

“It’s the right thing,” she said, rubbing her hands up and down her upper arms. “It’s the right thing for you and the right thing for Kit. I can’t raise him—Lady Sophia and all. I can have my charities, but I cannot actually keep a child to raise. I understand that.”

“Can we talk about this?”

Her chin came up. “You didn’t want to talk to me at the party.”

The strains of some old Handel came floating over the sounds of the Moreland gathering, the same pastoral lullaby Sophie had sung to Kit days ago, but this time rendered with mellow beauty on the church piano. The music was soothing, but sad too.

“Your father had something to explain to me, Sophie. I apologize if it seemed as if I was avoiding you.” But she was avoiding him, standing there trying not to shiver in the frigid night air. “Can we not find somewhere to sit? Because I do want to speak with you; I want it badly.”

“You’re taking the baby,” she said, visually scanning the green. “My brother is an idiot.”

He wasn’t sure which brother she referred to. “If you say so. I find them all likeable when they’re not threatening to thrash me.”

She scowled. “They’re still making threats?”

“Not lately.” He took her by the arm and started walking in the direction of the Harrads’ tidy porch. “I’m not inclined to take on the responsibility for the child, Sophie. Not in my present circumstances.”

“Because you’re going to China?”

“I was supposed to go to Baltimore.” And she was going to Yorkshire, for God’s sake.

“Wherever. Children usually travel well, particularly when they’re as small as Kit. He can’t stay with the Harrads, though. They’re decent people, but it was foolish of me to think strangers would love him the way we do.”

“So you love Kit?”

She stopped at the foot of the Harrads’ steps. “I do. I think you love him too, though, and you’re in a position to provide for him. I am prepared to be stubborn about this.”

“Formidable threat, my dear, but I am prepared to be stubborn too. Do you know what your papa wanted to discuss with me so urgently?”

This time when she looked him up and down, Vim had the sense she might be seeing him. “Papa is prone to queer starts. He does not confide in anybody that I can tell, except possibly Her Grace.”

He believed her. He believed she’d no more notion of who and what had been involved in Vim’s great humiliation all those years ago than he had himself. To this extent, then, His Grace—and likely the ducal consequence, as well—had been guarding Vim’s back, not driving daggers into it.

“It is a night for revelations. Can we take a seat?”

There was nowhere to sit, except the Harrads’ humble wooden stoop. He lowered himself to it and patted the place beside him. “Cuddle up, Sophie. It’s too cold to stand on pride much longer, and we have a dilemma to solve.”

She sat, and he let out a sigh of relief.

“What is our dilemma?” She might have tucked herself just a bit closer to him, or she might have been trying to get comfortable on their hard wooden seat.

“If Kit is to have the best start possible in life, he needs two parents who love him and care for him.”

She focused on something in the distance, as if trying to see the notes her brother’s playing was casting into the chilly darkness. “I cannot be both mother and father to him; neither can you.”

“I suggest a somewhat more conventional arrangement. You be his mother, and I’ll be his father.”

The arrangement was conventional in the extreme: one baby, a mama, a papa. It was the most prosaic grouping in the history of the species. The slow pounding of Vim’s heart was extraordinary, though. He fought to speak steadily over it.

“I owe you an apology, Sophie Windham.”

She closed her eyes. “You are speaking in riddles, Mr. Charpentier.”

Not my lord, not baron, not Sindal. “Vim. I would be Vim to you, and I will start with the apology. When we were in Town—”

She shook her head. “That was then; this is now. That time was just a silly wish on my part, and we stole that time for ourselves despite all sound judgment to the contrary. If you are going to apologize to me for what took place there, I will not accept it.”

He thought she might get up and walk away, and that he could not bear. Not again, not ever again. Not for himself, and not for the child, either. He found her hand and took it in both of his.

“You took the notion I was offering you a sordid arrangement before we left Town.”

She ducked her face to her knees. “Must we speak of this?”

“I must.” It was his only real hope, to give her the truth and pray it was enough. “You were not wrong, Sophie.”

Her head came up. “I wasn’t?”

“I was offering you any arrangement you’d accept. Marriage, preferably, but also anything short of that. I was offering anything and everything I had to keep a place in your life.”

“No.” She wrestled her hand free and hunched in on herself. “You were being gallant or honorable or something no woman wants to have as the sole motivator of a man’s marriage proposal before she watches her husband go boarding a ship for the high seas. That wasn’t what I wished for. It wasn’t what I wished for, at all.”

He shifted so he was kneeling before her on the hard ground, as much to stop her from leaving as because it seemed the only thing left to do.

“Tell me what you wished for, Sophie. Tell me, please.”

“I wanted—” She paused and dashed the back of her hand against her cheek. “I wished for some Christmas of my own. I wished for a man who will care for me and stand by me no matter what inconvenient baby I’ve attached myself to. A man who will love me, love our children, and sojourn through life with me. I wished, and then you appeared, and I wished—”

“What did you wish, Sophie?”

“I wished you were my Christmas, wished you could be all my Christmases.”

He wondered if maybe those shepherds on that long ago, faraway hillside had heard not the beating wings of the heavenly hosts but nothing more celestial than the beating of their own hearts, thundering with hope, wonderment, and joy.

“Happy Christmas, Lady Sophie.” He framed her face in his hands and kissed her, slowly, reverently. “Be all my Christmases, mine and Kit’s, forever and ever.”

She wrapped her fingers around his wrists and tried to draw his hands away when he brushed his thumbs over her damp cheeks.

“I cannot,” she said. “It isn’t enough that we both care for the child or that I care for you.”

He kissed her, kissed to silence her, kissed her to gather his courage. “Then let it be enough that I love you, you and the child both, and I will always love you. Please, I pray you, let it be enough.”

She drew back and studied him, and he could not stop the words from forming. “I don’t want to go to Baltimore. I don’t want to leave my aunt and uncle to continue managing when I should have been here years ago. I don’t want to avoid my neighbors because of some sad contretemps a dozen years ago, but I have wishes too, Sophie Windham.”

“What do you wish for?”

“A place in your heart. A permanent place in your heart. I wish for my children to have you as their mother. I wish for your idiot brothers to be doting uncles to our children and your sisters to be the aunts who spoil them shamelessly. I wish to make a home with you for our children, where your parents can come inspect our situation and criticize us for being too lenient with our offspring. I want one present, Sophie Windham—a future with you. That is my Christmas wish. Will you grant it?”

Lord Valentine’s impromptu recital came to a close as Vim posed his question, and silence filled the air.

“Please, Sophie?”

Vim was on his knees in the freezing darkness, and he reached for her. He reached out his arms for her just as she—thank God and all the angels—reached for him.

“Yes. Yes, Mr. Charpentier, I will be your Christmas, and you shall be mine, and Kit shall belong to us, and we shall belong to him, and my bro—”

He growled as he hugged her to him, and now, over in the church, Valentine’s choice was an ebullient, thundering chorus from the old master’s oratorio:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given… unto us, a son is given.”


How long she stayed in Vim’s arms there on the miserable cold steps Sophie could not have said. Spring could have come and gone and still she’d be reeling with joy and relief and hope.

Most of all with hope.

“Are you bothering our sister?”

Sophie raised her head to peer over Vim’s shoulder. Valentine, Westhaven, and St. Just were standing not ten feet away, and she hadn’t even heard them. St. Just had posed the question in that particularly calm tone that meant his temper could soon make an appearance.

Vim helped her to her feet and yet he kept an arm around her shoulders too.

“He was not bothering me. If you three can’t tell the difference between a man bothering an unwilling woman and kissing his very own intended, then I pity your wives.”

St. Just’s expression didn’t change, though Valentine was grinning, and Westhaven was quietly beaming at her. “And what of the child?” St. Just asked. “Sindal, do your good intentions encompass the child, as well?”

Vim’s arm tightened around her marginally. “Of course they do.” There was such a combination of ferocity and joy in his tone, Sophie couldn’t help but smile.

“That’s fortunate,” St. Just said, sauntering toward them. “You’ll be wanting this, then.” He withdrew a piece of paper from his coat pocket and passed it to Vim, who didn’t even unfold it.

“What is it?”

St. Just’s teeth gleamed in the darkness. “It’s the bill of sale for the mare and her unborn progeny.”

Vim glanced at Sophie, but she had no idea what her brother was about and was quite frankly too happy to care.

“It’s for the boy,” St. Just said. “I can’t exactly take the mare north in her present condition, and I don’t want to have come back south for her next fall, do I?”

“I suppose you don’t.”

Valentine cleared his throat. “The last thing I need is another violin. Once it’s restored, talented people will pay for the use of it in concert. Or given his moniker, the dratted baby might grow up with some musical inclinations.”

Vim looked a little puzzled. “A violin?”

“That’s very sweet of you, Val.” Sophie wrapped her arm around Vim’s waist. “We accept on Kit’s behalf.”

“Don’t suppose you’d hold a sweet shop in trust for him?” Westhaven looked positively gleeful to be making the offer. “I will always be his favorite uncle, if you do, and his cousins will hold him in particular esteem. It might also stand him in good stead when it comes time for him to court—”

“That is diabolical,” Valentine expostulated, scowling ferociously.

“It’s ducal,” St. Just agreed. “Worthy of the old man himself, Westhaven, and not well done of you.”

“We accept,” Sophie said, smiling at the dearest brothers in the world. “Don’t we?”

“Of course, we do,” Vim said. “But before our son has more wealth than his parents, I think I’d best be having another little chat with His Grace.”

“Excuse me, my lords, my lady.” Mr. Harrad stood in the doorway to his home, his slender frame exuding a certain self-consciousness. “I heard voices, and as it happens, my wife and I were hoping to speak with Lady Sophia and Lord Sindal in the near future.”

“We’ll leave you,” Westhaven said, stepping forward to kiss Sophie’s forehead. “Don’t stay out too long in this weather. Sindal, welcome to the family.”

“Welcome,” Valentine said, “but if you so much as give Sophie reason to wince, I will delight in thrashing you.” He kissed Sophie’s cheek and stepped back.

“And then I’ll stand you to a round,” St. Just said, extending a hand to Vim then drawing Sophie forward into the hug. “You’ll send the boy to me when it’s time to learn how to ride.”

It wasn’t a request, but it was sufficiently controversial that as they walked off in the direction of Morelands, all three brothers could tear into a rousing good argument about who would teach the lad to ride, to dance, to flirt, to shoot…

With a particular ache in her chest, Sophie watched them disappear into the night but realized she had one more bit of business to conclude before she could bring Vim home to her family. “Mr. Harrad, would now be a good time to chat?”

He glanced from Sophie to Vim, looking sheepish and tired. “As good as any.”


“The boy got through the whole service without making a peep.”

Vim watched as His Grace, Percival, the Duke of Moreland, beamed at the baby in his arms. “Not one peep, my love! I cannot say the same for my own boys.”

“Nor for yourself,” Her Grace muttered from her place beside her husband in the ducal carriage.

Vim exchanged a look with Sophie, to which Their Graces—eyes riveted on Kit in his gorgeous little receiving blankets—were oblivious.

“I can tell you this, Sindal.” His Grace did not glance up from the child. “Your grandfather and I discussed a match between you and one of my girls. He’d approve. He’d approve of this little fellow too.”

Her Grace looked like a woman who would very much like a turn holding the baby, but she instead posed a question to Sophie. “How did you ever talk Mrs. Harrad into parting with him?”

“We didn’t have to.” Sophie slipped her hand into Vim’s, so he took over the explanations.

“Mrs. Harrad is again in expectation of a blessed event,” Vim said. “She had not told her husband when he agreed to foster Kit, and they had rather a lot of difficult discussions once Kit was put in their keeping.”

“So things worked out all around,” His Grace said, brushing the ducal nose along Kit’s cheek. “He has my eyes, Esther.”

“Percival Windham, for pity’s sake.”

But His Grace was in great good spirits, and before Vim helped Sophie from the coach, the duke was making a list of pocket boroughs where Kit might stand for a seat in the Commons.

“Will you join me in the study for a tot, Sindal?” His Grace still had not given up the baby, and Kit was smiling and babbling as if the he and duke had been in the same form at public school.

“My uncle anticipates my company at Sidling, Your Grace. Perhaps another time.”

“We’ll see you at dinner, then,” the duchess said. “I daresay His Grace will at least let me feed the child sometime this afternoon.”

“Of course you can feed him,” His Grace replied. “But he’s joining me for a nip in the study first. Come along, Esther, the boy doesn’t need to be out in this weather, particularly when it looks like more snow will descend any moment.” They made a dignified progress to the house, leaving Sophie and Vim standing in the drive.

“You’ll travel back here in time for dinner tonight?”

“Assuming Uncle permits me to leave the grounds. Now that he knows we’ll be residing primarily at Sidling, he’s come up with all manner of projects and ideas requiring lengthy discussion.”

And to Vim’s pleasure and surprise, those lengthy discussions were enjoyable.

“I’m looking forward to seeing your property in Surrey.” Sophie slipped her hand in his and started walking with him toward the stables. “The sky does not look very promising.”

When they gained the relative privacy of the barn aisle, Vim treated the horses to the sight of a man kissing his intended with almost desperate focus. When he managed to step back, the secretive smile playing about Sophie’s lips made a dip in an icy horse trough loom with desperate appeal.

“I will be back for dinner, and I’ll be back tomorrow morning to ride out with you. If the weather’s foul, we can bake bread or listen to your brother practice his pianoforte.”

Her smile faded while she rested her check against Vim’s chest. “They’ll be leaving soon, all three of them. They’ve promised their ladies to be home by Twelfth Night.”

“They’ll come for the wedding.” Vim hoped they would. Sophie hadn’t set a date, and he hadn’t pressed her to, though tomorrow would suit him admirably. That very afternoon would suit even better.

Sophie smoothed her hand down his chest. “You’d best be going. I have to rescue Kit from Papa, lest the two of them get to sampling the brandy. Mama will not forgive me if Kit is a bad influence on the duke.”

Kit was a wonderful influence on His Grace, but Vim took the hint. The sooner he got to Sidling, the sooner he could return to Morelands. He kissed his intended again, mounted up, and rode out into the chilly air.

When he got to Sidling, not just his uncle but also his aunt waited for him in the estate office. They had plans, it seemed, for a reception in the portrait gallery in recognition of Vim’s engagement. And while Vim eyed the clock and the lowering sky, and his Uncle prattled on about the next full moon or possibly the one following, pretty little snow flurries began to dance in the air.


“Your swain came to you despite the weather.” Evie Windham kept her voice down, which was a mercy, because with three brothers in residence and Sophie being the first sister to become engaged, the situation was ripe for teasing.

“I don’t expect he’ll stay long.” Though with the way the snow had picked up, Sophie wished he’d stay at least until morning.

Evie looked like she might be the first to begin the teasing, when His Grace approached his daughters.

“If I’m to lose my dear Sophie to the charms of Rothgreb’s heir, then I must at least insist on accompanying her into dinner, mustn’t I?”

Evie patted her father’s arm. “You must, and you must protect her from our brothers, who have taken to dispensing advice on how to raise boy children, though between them they have about a year’s experience at it themselves.”

His Grace smiled. “They get this propensity for dispensing unwarranted advice from their mother.”

“Of course they do, Papa.” Evie swanned off, leaving Sophie the perfect opportunity to put a few quiet questions to her dear papa, questions she made very, very certain nobody—not a brother, not a sister, not even a duchess—overheard.

And if her questions perturbed His Grace, it wasn’t evident at dinner. The duke presided over a genial family meal, while Sophie sat next to Vim and tried to ignore the urge to surreptitiously explore the exact contours of her intended’s lap.

“My love.” His Grace addressed his wife down the length of the table. “We must not be sending young Sindal out into the elements tonight. There’s been entirely too much of that sort of thing in his courtship of our Sophie for an old man’s peace of mind.”

“Baron?” Her Grace aimed a smile at Vim where he sat beside Sophie. “Can we prevail upon you to accept our hospitality? I wouldn’t want to tempt fate by asking you to travel yet again in a worsening storm.”

Sophie slid her hand up from where it had been resting on Vim’s muscular thigh beneath the table. She squeezed the burgeoning length of him gently but firmly.

“I’m pleased to accept such friendly overtures, Your Graces.” His voice sounded only a little strained, and that was probably because Sophie was listening attentively. “My aunt and uncle urged me to tarry here if the weather became challenging.”

He settled his hand over hers, giving her fingers—and thus himself—another little squeeze as he said the last word.

And then, damn and blast, Her Grace gave the signal for the ladies to rise and join her for tea in the parlor, while Sophie’s brothers started exchanging the kinds of grins that assured her Vim would not be retiring yet for hours.

Sophie kept her features placid, even when Evie winked at her, Maggie rolled her eyes, and Her Grace rang for the cordials instead of the teapot.


Just knowing Sophie was down the hall—Vim’s room was in the family wing—was both a torture and a pleasure. He wanted to go to her, but God knew which brother, sister, or parent Vim might meet in the corridor.

He sighed, and for the twentieth time since retiring, rolled over in the vast bed.

A slow creak came to his ears. The creak repeated itself—a door opening then closing.

A scent drifted to his nose, a flowery, clean fragrance he was coming to treasure.

“Sophia Windham, you have developed a lamentable penchant for sneaking into gentlemen’s bedrooms.”

“I’m going to sneak into your bed, as well,” she said, parting the bed curtains. “It’s chilly out here.”

Trying to formulate a stern lecture about propriety was an utter waste of time as Sophie unbelted her wrapper, tossed it to the foot of the bed, and drew her chemise over her head.

“Can’t have you catching your death.” He flipped up the covers and admonished himself to plead shamelessly for the wedding to be held sooner rather than later—much sooner. The Good Lord was going to bestow only so many providential snowstorms on a man and his bride.

“I would rather catch my prospective husband at his slumbers.” She tucked herself against Vim’s side, a warm, lovely bundle of female. His arm came around her shoulders to gather her closer, and she sighed.

“I suppose, being a woman in contemplation of matrimony, you came here to talk?” He tried not to sound long-suffering, but her brothers had lectured him at great length about the adult woman’s need for, and entitlement to, private conversation with her spouse.

Sophie’s hand drifted across his bare abdomen. “Of course I came to talk. I love talking with you.”

He’d work the conversation around to the wedding date, then. Work the situation to his advantage while he tried not to take advantage of Moreland’s hospitality. And then, who knew where the conversation might lead them?

Sophie’s hand trailed up across his chest then traced his sternum down to his navel. “I came here to talk, because snowstorms are not a very reliable means of acquiring time with one’s beloved.” Her hand moved south and closed gently around Vim’s straining erection. “But I didn’t come here merely to talk.”


“The snow has stopped.” His Grace dropped the curtain and turned back to regard his wife as she sat at her escritoire.

She set her pen down, her serene countenance giving little clue to her emotional state, though His Grace noted the shadows in her eyes. “Then I suppose the boys will be traveling on sooner rather than later.”

“And in spring, we can go on a progress.” He crossed the room and bent to poke up the fire. “We’ll inspect Sindal’s place in Surrey, drop in on Westhaven and Viscount Amery—wouldn’t want Rose to feel neglected by her grandparents—head up to Oxfordshire to see Val and Ellen, then toddle on to the West Riding, if you like.”

She nodded. A man offers to spend weeks jaunting about the countryside imposing on one child after another, and his wife merely nods. “Esther, is something troubling you?”

“Not troubling me.” She rose and crossed to their bed, the bed where they’d conceived their children and made up after their increasingly rare fights. “Come sit with me, Husband.”

Husband. She rarely called him that, almost never before others. He sat with her and took her hand. “Tell me, Wife. I cannot have you troubled while I yet draw breath.”

“Our dear sensible Sophie, the daughter whom we never think to fret over—”

“We fret over every damned one of them, excuse my language.”

“—We do, but our Sophie, whom we don’t fret over so very much, that Sophie…” She turned and pressed her face to his shoulder, which caused His Grace to feel a frisson of unease. Esther was the kindest woman on God’s earth, but when it came to family, she was neither sentimental nor cowardly.

“Tell me about Sophie, Esther.”

“She cast up her accounts—as your sons would say—after breakfast. Again.”

His Grace put an arm around his wife’s shoulders and kissed her hair, mostly to hide his smile. “All will be well, Esther. You are not to worry. Sophie is a Windham. Of course she’d indulge in certain liberties with her intended. Probably got the tendency from her mother.”

Her Grace drew back, a frown creasing her pretty features. “You are not wroth? You’re not going to call Sindal out or ring a peal over their heads?”

“I am not, not when our own marriage began on similar terms—and look how well that turned out. Come to bed. If the weather has truly let up, then the rider should have no trouble getting back from Town posthaste.”

She climbed under the covers and curled into his arms, the same as she had almost every night of their married life. “What rider would that be?”

“The one procuring the special license Sophie asked me to obtain with all possible speed. Sent the poor messenger out in this weather with nothing less than my best bottle of whiskey to speed him on his way.”

His duchess sighed and snuggled closer. “Happy Christmas, Percival. I do love you.”

“Happy Christmas, Duchess, and I love you.”


“We’ll talk later, then.” Vim shifted so he was crouched over Sophie, his erection brushing her belly. “Now, we’ll anticipate marital privileges again, unless you march yourself right out that door this instant, Sophie Windham.”

“Your enthusiasm for these priv—gracious sakes!” She sighed as he kissed her, her hand landing in his hair, her hips tilting invitingly against him. Sophie already wore one of the heirloom Charpentier rings, and a part of Vim had half hoped with an official engagement, his hunger for his bride might abate to something closer to fondness, something that admitted of restraint and decorum, and of church services and family meals that didn’t feel like they lasted for days.

It was a vain, stupid hope. The more he loved her, the more he wanted to love her.

“Mr. Charpentier, why is it you locate your reserves of patience only when I am desperate for you to be impulsive?” Sophie purred her question into his ear, swiping at his lobe with her tongue then drawing it into her mouth and biting just firmly enough to tempt Vim to the impulsiveness she was trying to provoke.

“I am patient,” he growled while nudging at her sex with his cock, “because I am considerate of your pleasure, Sophie.”

“Such consideration usually has me yelling and moaning, and—” She grabbed his hair and used that to leverage her hips into a more accommodating angle. “I do love anticipating marriage to a considerate man.”

She loved making love with him, as well, something Vim had come to appreciate in their few though passionate encounters. Sophie Windham was every inch a lady, but also every inch a bride in love with her prospective husband.

He sank slowly into her willing heat, the pleasure of it nigh causing his ears to roar.

“Stop that, Sophie.” He slowed down more to make his point, but this just allowed her to use internal muscles to greater advantage. “For God’s sake, you’ll unman me.”

“For about ten minutes maybe.” She set up a rhythm that had Vim’s resolve crumbling and the old bed creaking. When she started to make a telltale little whimper in the back of her throat, he gave up and let passion consume them both. It wasn’t his imagination, either. As they became more familiar with each other as lovers, as each learned the other’s sensitivities and preferences, the pleasure became greater and greater. He’d come to expect the roaring in his ears and the boiling pleasure that exploded out from his vitals and tore through his body each and every time they made love.

When he hung over her, panting and sated, when her fingernails had left an imprint on his backside, he lifted his head to peer around the room. “You really must stop accosting me like this, Sophie. I’m going to have to insist on a New Year’s wedding, lest our next child be born prematurely.”

“New Year’s is a lovely holiday—or Twelfth Night.” She sounded so satisfied, Vim had to smile.

“Stay put. I’m going to hold you to a date, my lady, if I have to be found sharing a bed with you to do it.” He eased from her body, knowing her eyes would be on him as he climbed from beneath the covers.

When he came back to the bed as naked as God had made him, his intended had considerately obeyed him—for once—and remained on her back, a rosy flush fading from her cheeks.

“You are tired,” he observed, sitting on the edge of the bed. “I do believe you were dozing during Vicar’s sermon too.”

“My eyes were closed the better to revere the wisdom he was imparting. Do not tickle me, else I shall have to seek revenge on you.”

He swabbed delicately at her intimate parts, wishing he’d lit more candles. “I love it when you seek revenge, and did I hear you mention that you must wait ten minutes while I regain my manly vigor? Surely that was an exaggeration intended to provoke me.”

“To inspire you.” She held the covers up so he could rejoin her in the bed.

“You’re going to love the place in Surrey, Sophie. We won’t be far from Westhaven, but if he presumes to call before February, I’m going to sign his blasted sweet shop back over to him.”

Vim would not allow her to miss her brothers. It was badly done of them to neglect her, but now she had a husband who knew all about traveling the realm, though of course he and Sophie would make Sidling their base.

“Hold me, please.” She pulled his arm around her middle to emphasize her point, and Vim had to wonder if any pleasure on earth compared with cuddling with his very own Sophie.

“Will you fall asleep on me now, Miss Windham?”

“No, but I will avail myself of this fifteen-minute interval to speak with you privately.”

“Five minutes.” He palmed her breasts—her marvelously sensitive breasts—and heard her sigh with the pleasure of it.

He was not alarmed that she had something on her mind to discuss. When she’d accepted his heart into her keeping, Sophie Windham had earned his trust, as well—but he was curious.

“Why do we need privacy, my love?” He levered up on his elbow to watch as a predictable softness came over her features at the endearment. He used it with shameless frequency for his own pleasure, but also for hers.

“I have some questions for you.”

Serious, indeed. He brushed her hair back from her forehead with his thumb. “I will answer to the best of my ability.”

“You know about changing nappies.”

“I do.”

“You know about feeding babies.”

“Generally, yes.”

“You know about bathing them.”

“It isn’t complicated.”

She fell silent, and Vim’s curiosity grew when Sophie rolled to her back to regard him almost solemnly. “I asked Papa to procure us a special license.”

He’d wondered why the banns hadn’t been cried but hadn’t questioned Sophie’s decision. “I assumed that was to allow your brothers to attend the ceremony.”

“Them? Yes, I suppose.”

She was in a quiet, Sophie-style taking over something, so he slid his arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple. “Tell me, my love. If I can explain my youthful blunders to you over a glass of eggnog, then you can confide to me whatever is bothering you.”

She ducked her face against his shoulder. “Do you know the signs a woman is carrying?”

He tried to view it as a mere question, a factual inquiry. “Her menses likely cease, for one thing.”

Sophie took Vim’s hand and settled it over the wonderful fullness of her breast then shifted, arching into his touch. “What else?”

He thought back to his stepmother’s confinements, to what he’d learned on his travels. “From the outset, she might be tired at odd times,” he said slowly. “Her breasts might be tender, and she might have a need to visit the necessary more often than usual.”

She tucked her face against his chest and hooked her leg over his hips. “You are a very observant man, Mr. Charpentier.”

With a jolt of something like alarm—but not simply alarm—Vim thought back to Sophie’s dozing in church, her marvelously sensitive breasts, her abrupt departure from the room when they’d first gathered for dinner.

“And,” he said slowly, “some women are a bit queasy in the early weeks.”

She moved his hand, bringing it to her mouth to kiss his knuckles, then settling it low on her abdomen, over her womb. “A New Year’s wedding will serve quite nicely if we schedule it for the middle of the day. I’m told the queasiness passes in a few weeks, beloved.”

To Vim’s ears, there was a peculiar, awed quality to that single, soft endearment.

The feeling that came over him then was indescribable. Profound peace, profound awe, and profound gratitude coalesced into something so transcendent as to make “love”—even mad, passionate love—an inadequate description.

“If you are happy about this, Sophie, one tenth as happy about it as I am, then this will have been the best Christmas season anybody ever had, anywhere, at any time. I vow this to you as the father of your children, your affianced husband, and the man who loves you with his whole heart.”

She cupped his jaw with her hand and blinded him with her smile. “The best Christmas,” she said. “The best anybody has ever had, anywhere, at any time, until our Christmas, with our children, next year.”

It did not take Vim five minutes to commence celebrating their impending good fortune—it did not take him one minute, in fact. And Sophie was right: their family’s ensuing Christmases were the best anybody ever had, anywhere, at any time.