Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
Author:Grace Burrowes

Four



“Shall I pour you some tea, Sophie?”

“Yes, thank you. And I saw some cinnamon buns too. I’ll take mine with butter.”

Vim busied himself with the food, grateful for the distraction. Kit was up on his hands and knees again, occasionally rocking and bouncing as if he expected the floor itself to propel him along the carpet somehow.

Sophie took her tea, setting the cup and saucer up on the coffee table out of the baby’s reach. “What story will you tell me?”

“What kind of story would you like?”

“An exciting story. One with an exotic climate and mortal peril.”

He had to smile at the relish in her voice. “Do we have bloodthirsty warring factions in this story?”

“No war, please.”

She’d lost a brother to the Corsican’s armies. He’d forgotten that, though she never would. “You want a happy ending, then?”

She studied her teacup for a thoughtful moment. “I don’t admit to my family that I still want the happy endings and wishes to come true. A mature woman should just take life as it comes, and I do have a great deal to be grateful for.”

“But a mature woman should also be honest with herself, and with me. You’re allowed to wish for the happy endings, Sophie. For yourself and for Kit too.”

When he looked up from his teacup, she was studying him. “May I wish for a happy ending for you too, Vim Charpentier?”

She would. Regardless of her role in this grand household, Sophie Windham was decent enough—lady enough—to include him in her wishes, though he knew a fleeting frustration at not being able to divine what exactly her role was.

“Christmas approaches, and I’m sure you’ve been a very good girl. You may wish for anything you like.”

Something flickered across her usually serene features, something feminine and mysterious and quite… attractive.

Vim launched into a tale of shipwreck on a tropical paradise, leaving out mention of flies, dysentery, and petty squabbling among the survivors. He described the noise and destruction of the hurricanes, the attempts to rebuild the boat, and the difficult voyage from the island back to some semblance of civilization, wondering why no one had ever asked for this story before.

Not that anyone asked him for any stories.

“You have entertained Kit marvelously,” Sophie said when he’d brought the tale to its mandatory happy conclusion. “I can see him planning his first voyage.”

Kit was sailing the expanse of Vim’s chest, the baby’s back arched like a baby seal’s. Vim tapped him gently on the nose. “I can see My Lord Baby succumbing to exhaustion following this very eventful day. If Miss Sophie and I are flagging, sir, then you most certainly are overdue for a visit to the arms of Morpheus.”

Kit grinned hugely and thumped Vim on the chest with one fist.

“I don’t think he agrees with you.” Sophie finished this observation on a polite yawn.

“Shall I take his cradle up to your room?”

“That would be appreciated. I’d best grab some clean nappies, shouldn’t I?”

“Forearmed and all that. I’ll put the tea tray away.”

“Leave it. I’ll deal with it in the morning.”

After you’re gone. She’d left the words unspoken out of kindness, no doubt.

He cuddled the baby to his chest and got to his feet. The idea of leaving ought to fill him with relief. The longer he stayed, the greater the possibility some word of this interlude would reach the wrong ears. He was overdue to report to Sidling, and Sophie was managing famously with Kit. He really would be glad to be on his way once more, even on his way to Sidling at the Christmas season.

Sophie reached for the baby, and Vim passed him over without another word.

***

“He thinks I’ve been a good girl.” Sophie made sure Kit was resting comfortably in his cradle then went back to the task at hand, which was brushing out her hair at the end of the day.

Also coming to terms with Mr. Vim Charpentier’s disturbing presence just a few doors down the corridor.

“I haven’t been good, young Kit. I’ve been perfect. My conduct is held up to the young debs as exemplary. The fellows all know it’s safe to escort me anywhere, my papa has been seen patting my cheek in public, and my mama is confident my portion of charity work will suffice for the entire family’s good name.”

She paused with the brush and peered at the baby. “You know how tiresome it is to be good all the time.”

Kit sighed around his thumb. Sophie took it for a sigh of commiseration.

“Except I’m not perfect. I watch Mr. Charpentier’s mouth when he speaks of the sun on the Caribbean waves being so bright it makes the eyes ache. He has a beautiful mouth and a gorgeous voice. It isn’t all pomp and circumstance, like His Grace holding forth on the Catholic question. It’s…”

She let go a sigh. She’d sighed a lot since closing her bedroom door. To her ears, those sighs were the sound of a grown woman admitting she wasn’t nearly as done with wishes and dreams as she ought to be. “Vim’s voice is warm. He has the knack of making me feel like I’m the only person who has ever listened to him. Like I’m the person to whom he must tell his stories.”

That was so fanciful, she fell silent. Not even a baby should be told of the shifting about going on in Sophie’s middle, from a woman of common sense to a woman who, for the first time in her life, understood what it was to be smitten.

“And to think I wanted as much solitude as I could steal this Christmas.”

It had been wicked and daring and very bad of her not to go with her family directly out to Morelands. Every year she dutifully participated in the exodus to Kent for the holidays, and Sophie saw decades of Yule seasons spent with her aging parents, sharing fond reminiscences of nieces and nephews as they grew to adulthood.

“I want to be wicked, Kit. I want to crawl off my blankets and go exploring. I want to get into trouble, but I do not want to bring trouble to Mr. Charpentier.”

Vim looked to her like a man who’d dealt with more than his share of trouble, as if beneath all the kindness and humor in his marvelous blue eyes, there was a weariness of spirit, a burden on his heart. She wanted to ease that burden, and she wanted to do it not just with polite, ladylike, kind words, she wanted to offer him the comfort of her very body.

She should not be thinking of Mr. Charpentier and trouble in the same breath. Sophie knew so little about getting into trouble—much less getting into trouble without making trouble—that she lay awake for a long time, wondering just how a proper lady might go about it.

A proper lady and a wonderful, unexpected gentleman with a beautiful mouth, a gorgeous voice, and an even lovelier heart.

***

Vim had fallen into the luxurious bed, thinking sleep would follow immediately, and it did, only to depart a few hours later. The storm still raged outside, but his guest room was wonderfully cozy. There were several buckets of coal waiting to be added to the fire, the bed curtains were heavy enough to block out both cold and light, and the house was quiet in the way a solid structure could be even with a winter wind howling outside.

And yet, something woke him… a sound, a shift, something.

From down the hall he heard a faint, lilting melody. It came to Vim through the darkness, the tempo slow enough that a tired woman could walk the floor to it, a fussy baby in her arms.

He considered getting up, but there was no strident bawling from the child to pierce the lullaby. There was only darkness and warmth and a sweetness with the erotic edge to it men didn’t speak of when considering a mother and baby.

He’d slept naked, a pleasure not always practical when traveling economically. And as Sophie’s voice drifted to him through the darkness, he pushed the sheets aside and let his hand find its way to the burgeoning fullness of his cock.

He’d traveled too far and seen too much to feel guilt or awkwardness about a private moment like this. A slow, voluptuous pleasure claimed him as Sophie’s voice died away in the warmth and darkness. It wasn’t right or wrong, it made no difference in how Sophie would view him in the morning, but as pleasure inundated his body, Vim had to admit it was a solitary, even lonely, pleasure.

***

“Do all male children like being naked?”

Sophie posed the question as dispassionately as she could, but Kit was in rare spirits as Mr. Charpentier unswaddled him in the kitchen.

“No.” He lifted the child into his arms from the blankets spread on the worktable. “All males of any age like being naked, and I’m fairly certain it’s true across species, as well. Test the water.”

He said things like that to her, naughty things, things her brothers probably thought and didn’t say—though they might have when they were younger.

Sophie dipped her fingers into the small washtub on the table. “It’s warm but not hot.”

“Then let the games begin.”

The games were to comprise Kit’s first bath in Sophie’s care, and entailed heating two buckets of water over the kitchen fire, lining the edge of a tub with towels, and mixing hot and cold water just so, to just such a depth, and assembling blankets and nappies and flannels and socks, as well as the mildest soap Sophie could borrow from her mother’s private chambers.

Mr. Charpentier was in shirt, waistcoat, and breeches, his cuffs rolled back to his elbows. He’d warned Sophie that bathing a baby was best undertaken in old clothing, so she was in a comfortable dress of maroon velvet, her sleeves turned back, as well.

“In you go, young Kit.” He slowly lowered the baby into the tub, which provoked an immediate and deafening squeal of delight. Kit sat in the middle of the tub, smacking the water vigorously with both hands and crowing with glee.

“Told you it wasn’t for the faint of heart.”

There was gruff humor in Mr. Charpentier’s voice, the first humor Sophie had detected from him that morning. “Now what do we do?”

“We play.”

He lowered his hand into the water and used his thumb and middle finger to flick the baby’s chest with water. The gleeful squealing stopped, and Kit stared at the large male hand that had produced such a startling new sensation.

“He wants you to do it again.”

“You do it.” Mr. Charpentier straightened and grabbed a cloth to dry his hand, the baby’s gaze on him the entire time.

Sophie regarded the baby making a happy tempest in the middle of the washtub. A duke’s daughter did not engage in tomfoolery… but she wasn’t a duke’s daughter at that moment. She was a woman with a baby to bathe.

“Kit.” She trailed a hand through the water. “You are having entirely too much fun in there. Perhaps it’s time we got down to business.” She dribbled water down the child’s chubby arm, and got heartily splashed as Kit expressed his approval of this new game. By damp fits and starts, Sophie got him bathed, got the entire front of her old dress wet, and only realized Mr. Charpentier was largely dry when the man handed her a clean blanket to wrap the wet, wiggling baby in.

“You were no help at all, Vim Charpentier. You left me stranded at sea.”

“You managed quite well with just your own oars, Sophie Windham. Kit looks to be considering a career in the Navy.” He tucked the blanket up over the child’s damp head. “Watch he doesn’t catch a chill now. Some people think bathing unhealthy, though I can’t agree. At Kit’s age, it’s fun too.”

“But somehow, as older children, we get the idea a bath is not fun.” She used the blanket to pat gently at Kit’s face and hands then laid him blanket and all on the worktable.

Vim stood back, watching her as she put a clean nappy on the baby, dodging little feet and hands as she worked. She’d had some practice with this through the night—more practice than any tired woman wanted.

“What’s not fun,” Vim said, trailing a finger down the baby’s cheek, “is being told what to do, whether it’s a bath, sums, or Latin vocabulary. You’re getting better at this.”

“You’re distracting him, which helps a great deal. Is someone telling you what to do?” She didn’t look at him as she posed the question. His mood had been a trifle distant, though he’d been perfectly polite since joining her in the kitchen more than an hour ago. Polite but preoccupied.

“This storm is telling me what to do. It’s telling me I won’t be making any progress toward my family seat today.”

She couldn’t help it. She smiled at him, letting both relief and pleasure show plainly. “I was rather hoping you’d reach that conclusion.”

His answering smile appeared reluctant, lifting one corner of his mouth then working its way to the other. “But you weren’t about to lecture or nag or bully me. You just fed me an enormous breakfast then let Master Kit work his wiles on me.” The smile faded. “I don’t like to think of you here alone with him in this weather. What if you should need a doctor? What if you should burn your hand?”

“Worrying is seldom productive,” she said, quoting her mother and sounding—to her horror—exactly like Her Grace. She sat Kit on the table amid his blankets and started working a clean dress over his head.

Vim tidied up the little makeshift bath, hanging the now damp towels on nails in the rafters near the hearth. “You didn’t worry every time you got up with Kit in the middle of the night?”

“How did you know we were awake?”

He shot her a peculiar look from across the kitchen then went back to hanging towels. “You have a pretty voice, Sophie.”

It made no sense, but his compliment had her blushing. She’d received compliments before, on her attire, her mare, her embroidery, but her voice wasn’t something she’d purchased or made, it was part of her.

“My mother thought we should all learn an instrument,” she said. “I tried piano, but my next oldest brother is so astoundingly good at it, I put him to use as my accompanist from time to time. My whole family likes to sing, except my father. He cannot, as they say, carry a tune in a bucket.”

She finished bundling the child up, her gaze drawn to the way muscles bunched and moved under the skin of Vim Charpentier’s forearms as he worked. “What awaits you at home, Mr. Charpentier?”

“Why do you ask?” He hung the last towel on a hook and crossed to the table. “Are we reusing this water, or should I dump it?”

“You can dump it in the laundry, and you’re avoiding my question by answering it with a question.”

The single glance he flicked at her confirmed Sophie’s suspicion in this regard. He wasn’t good at evasion or dissembling—something she had to approve of—and he did not want to make this journey down to Kent.

Did not want to even discuss it.

He came back into the kitchen, rolling his sleeves down as he did. Sophie found this mundane gesture on his part inordinately interesting.

“If you’d like to catch a nap, Sophie, I can watch His Highness for a bit.”

A generous—and distracting—offer. Sophie let the topic of his journey home ease away. He hadn’t pried regarding her status; she would return the consideration—for now. “I was hoping you would watch the baby for a just a little while, but not so I can sleep. I’d like to check on Higgins and Merriweather, bring in more milk and eggs, and take the grooms some cinnamon buns and butter.”

He blew out a breath, and Sophie prepared to be Reasoned With.

“Have you looked out the window, Sophie Windham?”

“Occasionally, yes.”

“Then you comprehend there’s better than two feet of snow out there and more coming down?”

“I do comprehend this. I also comprehend Higgins and Merriweather shoveled out paths between the house and the mews. The least I can do is show my appreciation.”

She lifted Kit off the table and perched him on her hip. A discussion of this nature required patience and determination, nothing more.

Vim took two steps closer to her, until she had to lift her chin to meet his gaze. “You aren’t going to back down on this. What’s the real reason you want to make this outing, Sophie?”

“What’s the real reason you don’t want to go home?”

The question was out of her mouth before she could consider its rudeness, but he was right: she was determined on her outing.

“It isn’t home.” His mouth was a flat line, his eyes bleak. “If you’ll let me do some shoveling, I will escort you and My Lord Baby to the mews. If we bundle him up, he should enjoy the change of scene.”

She considered that this was a Male Tactic, designed to keep her indoors out of guilt and concern for the child, but the disgruntlement in Vim’s expression belied that notion. “You’re sure the weather won’t bother him?”

“No more than it’s bothering me.” He turned to leave, heading for the back hallway. She let him go, because their last exchange hadn’t been quite as polite as everything that had gone before.

Still, she sensed it had been honest. She liked that it had been honest.

***

Vim had heard a rumor regarding certain native peoples of far northern Canada. It was said to be an article of hospitality in those parts to offer a guest the intimate use of his host’s wife, or to trade wives with friends for purposes of sexual recreation.

As Vim shoveled out paths thoroughly drifted over, he considered the hypothesis that excessive winter weather affected the humors such that prurient activity became even more enticing than usual.

Not that it had been enticing in recent memory. Not until he’d decided Sophie Windham and her foundling needed some supervision to get a proper start with each other.

He should not have given in to the urge to gratify himself the previous night, but the temptation had been rare of late, and a man didn’t want to admit such a thing could be worrisome. He shoveled that thought off into the nearest drift.

He was getting old, and by God, he did not want to spend his holidays at Sidling.

He was clear enough on that to have a path reshoveled from the house to the stables in no time. The exertion had felt good, but another form of exertion wanted to crowd its way into his imagination, one involving naked bodies and cozy beds.

He could shovel his way to Kent in no time if he allowed his mind dwell there, so he put up the shovel and let himself into the mansion’s back hallway.

“We’re ready!” Sophie’s voice sang out from the kitchen, and then she appeared in the doorway, the baby all but rolled into a rug, so snugly was he covered.

“I’ll take Kit.” Vim held out his arms, and Sophie passed along her bundle without protest.

“Thank you. Let me fetch the buns, and we can be on our way.”

She disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Vim to realize Sophie had been feeling housebound too. It put him a little more in charity with life, to think he was doing her a service just by seeing her across the alley.

The bundle in his arms cooed.

“It’s winter.” Vim peeled away just enough blankets to expose baby-blue eyes. “Cold is part of it, but we’re English, so we refer to this as fresh air. Repeat after me: fresh air.”

“Gah.”

“My sentiments, as well, truth be told, but there’s a steaming bowl of porridge in it for you if you keep your nappy clean for the next fifteen minutes.”

“Bah!”

Vim was still smiling when Sophie emerged from the kitchen. Her gaze went from Vim to Kit and back to Vim. “This looks like a conspiracy in progress. What have you two been up to?”

“Plotting a raid on the pantry. Shall we brave the elements?”

“Please.” She wrapped a scarf around her ears and neck and followed Vim out the back door. When she stood with him for a moment on the back terrace, her cheeks rosy and her breath puffing white in the winter air, Vim considered handing her the baby and plunging headfirst into the nearest snowdrift.

The impulse to kiss her was that strong.

***

Devlin St. Just, Colonel Lord Rosecroft, propped his stockinged feet on a scarred coffee table, took a sip of lovely rum punch, and listened to his younger brothers squabbling. It was a wonderful sound to a man who had only two younger brothers left.

“I say we wait another day.” Westhaven was getting quite ducal in his pronouncements, which was an understandable tactic, if poorly advised when dealing with their youngest brother.

“I say you’re full of shit,” Lord Valentine replied with a diffidence no doubt calculated to aggravate. “The snow isn’t that deep, we’ve already tarried here a day, and all we’ve seen is some flurries and a lot of low-hanging clouds. This is Sophie we’re talking about, need I remind you?”

“Sophie.” Westhaven pushed out of his wing chair and began to pace around the inn’s private parlor, making a credible impersonation of their mutual father, His Grace the Duke of Moreland. “Sophie, the paragon of probity. Sophie, the delight and comfort of our parents’ eyes. Sophie, the sensible. Sophie, named for wisdom herself. She isn’t clinging to a tree in some enormous snowdrift, her lips too frozen to call for help. She’s ensconced in Lady Chattell’s parlor, being plied with chocolate and marzipan.”

St. Just took another sip of his punch and exchanged a look with Val intended to limit the goading. Westhaven was worried. Worried enough to be counseling sense when sense wasn’t necessarily going to carry the day. As heir to the dukedom, he’d refined worrying to a high art, and his siblings all loved him for it.

Mostly.

“Sophie is sensible,” Val said, still affecting bored tones. “She’s sensible enough not to get caught when she’s visiting the Magdalene houses in the East End. She’s sensible enough to take in every stray animal that ever pissed in a back alley and to put the vagrant humans she finds there to work in the stables. She’s sensible enough to tat lace and embroider pillowcases while fomenting the rights of women with her pin money. The storm is reported to be worse in London, and I say we push on now.”

St. Just intervened before they started yelling in the ducal tradition. “Both of you have some punch. The spices are excellent, and it calms the humors. Seasonal cheer never hurt a fraternal congregation.”

Westhaven resumed his seat, running his hand through dark chestnut hair. They all shared height and green eyes, but St. Just and Val had darker hair. This plan to meet up in Cambridge had been Westhaven’s idea, and as usual with Westhaven’s plans, a sound notion. Val had been appraising some antique harpsichords in Peterborough, Westhaven lecturing at Cambridge, and St. Just traveling south from Yorkshire—and all of them had been cordially summoned by Her Grace to put in a holiday appearance at the ducal seat in Kent.

One could ignore a summons from His Grace. The duke would simply issue a louder summons or come deliver the next summons in person.

One ignored a summons from the duchess at risk of causing that dear lady disappointment, and Val and Westhaven were arguing over the sibling who, in all her twenty-some years, had likely caused Their Graces the least disappointment.

So far. Sophie was a different hairpin, though. She might not merit regular castigation like her brothers and sisters, but St. Just knew she puzzled her parents, and puzzlement was in some ways a more painful state of affairs than disappointment.

St. Just kept his features bland, as he’d learned to do when listening to half-drunk generals squabble over competing idiot plans while the sensible course lay in plain sight before them all, silently begging for notice.

“Valentine, you are agitating to push on in part because you are worried about matters at home in Oxford.” St. Just passed his youngest brother a steaming mug along with a shut-up-and-hear-me-out look. “Westhaven, you are concerned we’ll offend Sophie if we go to heroic measures to retrieve her from Town when she’s perfectly capable of managing competently under all situations—at least to appearances.”

He passed Westhaven a mug, and in deference to the man’s standing and sensibilities, a please-hear-me-out look.

But Val was never one to take orders just because it made sense to do so. “A new wife is not a matter. She is my family. Their Graces have had thirty years to spend holidays with us, and this my first—”

Westhaven sighed, took a sip of punch, and glanced over at Val. “It doesn’t get easier the longer you’re married. You still fret, more in fact, once the babies start coming.”

Val’s head cocked, as if he’d just recalled his brother was also his friend. “Well, as to that…” Val smiled at his punch. Baby Brother sported a devastating smile when he wanted to, but this expression was…

St. Just lifted his mug. “Congratulations, then. How’s Ellen faring?”

“She’s in fine spirits, in glowing good health, and I’m a wreck. I think she sent me off to Peterborough with something like relief in her eye.”

Westhaven was staring morosely at his grog. “Anna isn’t subtle about it anymore. She tells me to get on my horse and not come back until I’ve worked the fidgets out of us both. She’s quite glad to see me when I return, though. Quite glad.”

For Westhaven, that was the equivalent of singing a bawdy song in the common.

St. Just propped his mug on his stomach. “Emmie says I’m an old campaigner, and I get twitchy if I’m confined to headquarters too long. Winnie says I need to go on scouting patrol. The reunions are nice, though. You’re right about that.”

Val took a considering sip of his drink then speared St. Just with a look. “I wouldn’t know about those reunions, but I intend to find out soon. Dev, you are the only one of us experienced at managing a marching army, and I’m not in any fit condition to be making decisions, or I’d be on my way back to Oxfordshire right now.”

“Wouldn’t advise that,” Westhaven said, still looking glum. “Your wife will welcome you sweetly into her home and her bed, but you’ll know you didn’t quite follow orders—our wives are in sympathy with Her Grace—and they have their ways of expressing their…”

Both brothers chimed in, “Disappointment.”

A moment of thoughtful imbibing followed, after which St. Just went to the door, bellowed an order for another round of punch, then returned to the blazing fire.

“All right, then. It seems to me the clouds are hanging off to the south and west, but all the northbound and eastbound travelers are telling us the storm is serious business. Here’s what I propose…”

Lord Val and Lord Westhaven listened, and in the end they agreed. The grog was good, the advice was sound, and Sophie was, after all, their most sensible sister.