Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
Author:Grace Burrowes

Nine



There was a vocabulary between men and women, one Sophie had never needed to understand. It included glances, sly innuendo, subtle movements of the fan, and even particular flowers combined into bouquets and presented at certain angles. It was a different and darker vocabulary than she’d learned in the drawing rooms and ballrooms, one more fraught with meaning and emotion.

So the precise implication of a single, quiet question—“Shall I pleasure you, Sophie?”—was not entirely obvious to her mind, but her body was clear enough on its meaning.

That velvet baritone promised he would kiss her, hold her, and very likely join his body to hers.

“We shall pleasure each other,” she said, lying in the circle of his arm. She’d made her decision not in the heat of their passionate kisses but rather in quiet moments, watching him tickle the baby, listening to him read poetry, or watching him shovel a walkway to the privy in the freezing wind and snow.

“Then the nightgown will have to go.” He set his hand on her shoulder, and Sophie’s heart started hammering in her chest. It was dark behind the bed curtains, cozy, and warm, but she covered his hand with her own.

His fingers trailed down her arm. “Eventually,” he said. “It can go eventually. Let me hold you.”

Not a question this time, and yet Sophie was certain if she announced she’d changed her mind and decided to excuse Vim from the bed, he’d sigh, flop the covers back—likely kiss her nose—and leave for his own room.

In the morning, he’d be pleasant and considerate, affectionate even, and then he’d be gone.

Gone.

Sophie rearranged herself on her back. She couldn’t ask questions, lest he fathom the degree of her ignorance, so she kissed him. Leaned up and pressed her lips to his, cradling his jaw with her hand.

A man’s jaw at the end of the day was a rough, scratchy thing. She reveled in this realization, a little detail that was the stuff of adult intimacy. He’d used his tooth powder too, and probably washed off with bergamot-scented soap.

He turned his face into her palm. “You must tell me what pleases you, Sophie.”

“Such words are not always easy to say.” Particularly when the feel of him—his jaw, his lips, his nose, his hair, the exact shape of the back of his skull against her palm—was so absorbing.

“Then show me. Put my hands where you want them to go, touch me where it pleases you to touch me.”

“All over. I want to touch you all over.”

He might have chuckled a little, or growled with pleasure at her words, though she’d spoken only the simple truth. Vim was a healthy, naked male in his prime, and she wished she’d had the courage to leave a candle burning and the curtains drawn back.

But no matter, she’d see him with her hands. While he lay quietly beside her, she explored the terrain of his chest, a warm, smooth plane of bone, muscle, and beating heart. When she grazed her palm over one small male nipple, she heard him inhale.

“It’s the same for me as for you,” he said, moving his hand to cover one breast. “There’s sensitivity in certain places. Marvelous sensitivity.”

Marvelous, indeed. Through the fabric of her nightgown, the weight of his hand covering her breast spread a lovely warmth through her middle. Her back arched into the contact without Sophie’s volition, and when he closed his fingers gently over her nipple, her breath caught in her throat.

“The same, you see.” Vim stroked her breast through the fabric then lowered his head and used his teeth to apply the same gentle, arousing pressure.

She had to do something, lest his attentions destroy her reason, so she found his nipple and emulated his caress.

“Like that,” he said, barely lifting his mouth from her. He’d wet the fabric of her nightgown with his mouth, a maddening, frustrating, altogether pleasurable sensation that had heat coursing out through Sophie’s body.

Did he want her mouth on him in the same way?

“Stop trying to think, Sophie.” He lifted his head from her breast and shifted to fuse his mouth to hers.

Marvelous, lovely, spectacular… She winnowed her hand through his hair and gave herself up to the sheer glory of being kissed by a man who knew exactly what he was about. His onslaught was delicate and voracious at once, tasting her, enticing her tongue with his own, and inspiring Sophie to hike her leg over his hips in a bid to draw him closer.

Ah, God, she wanted this to go on forever. She wanted him to show her all there was to know and then forge new ground with her, ground unique to the two of them. And God bless the man, while he was storming her very reason with his kisses, his hand, his wonderful, warm hand, settled back over her breast.

“Vim…”

“Tell me if you like it.” He closed his hand around her breast, drawing a little on her nipple. “I like it. I like the feel of you in my arms, Sophie. I like the way you taste, I like how your hands feel on my naked body.”

“Naked.” Naked was wonderful too. She slid her hand down over his flank to grab him by his derriere and try to pull him closer. “I like that you’re naked. I like it a lot.”

He closed his mouth over hers, and Sophie just barely registered the sensation of her nightgown being slowly, slowly eased up her thigh.

Naked was wonderful, and she wanted to be naked too. This burning, searing closeness was another part of what she’d wished for, lighting bonfires in all the places her mind and body had been growing steadily colder for years. She put her hand over his where it was stealing up her leg.

“Let me take this off.” She said the words right against his mouth and was thus able to feel him smile. He shifted back just a few inches.

“Be quick about it, lest I aid you and shred the thing to bits.”

And that had her smiling too, to think of him literally tearing her clothes off. She wrestled the nightgown over her head and tossed it to the foot of the bed.

“I’m naked.” It didn’t seem like a foolish thing to say; it seemed like the most brave, delightful sentence ever uttered. She was naked, he was naked in the same bed, and her body was humming and tapping its figurative toe to the tune of some lovely new music.

“And now what shall I do with you in your naked state?” he mused. “What shall you do with me?”

He settled on his back, leaving Sophie momentarily puzzled.

“You were doing quite nicely a moment ago,” she said, drawing the covers up around her.

“And I could kiss and pet you forever, love, but we must indulge your desires if I’m to consider myself properly acquitted in this bed.”

“How can you sound so damnably composed?” The question came out all of its own, leaving Sophie to realize that parting with her clothes was creating other vulnerabilities and exposures completely beyond her experience.

His shifted so his hands could close on her shoulders. “Iron self-discipline alone keeps me from tossing the covers aside and rutting on you like a satyr.”

A thread of darkness in his declaration suggested he was telling the truth.

“Satyrs seem like such happy creatures.” Sophie made this observation as Vim shifted her over him, until she realized he wanted her to straddle him.

Good God, was this why ladies never rode astride? The very position, with him laid out beneath her like a banquet, her knees pressed to his hips, left her feeling naughty and bold.

“The satyrs likely expired from an excess of pleasure. Come here, Sophie, and kiss me.”

With the shift in position, Vim had changed the game. Sophie perceived this at the level of instinct, but it took gazing down at him for a moment before she understood the nature of the change.

“You want me to make love to you.” She trailed her hand over his chest. “When I was on my back, you were making love to me.”

His hand closed over hers on his chest, and he brought her fingers to his lips. “We make love to each other, Sophie.” No teasing, no flirting, but rather a quiet gravity infused his voice. “I am here for the sole purpose of giving you pleasure, and that will give me pleasure long after this night has passed.”

She folded down onto his chest, abruptly needing to hide her face against his throat. His arms closed around her, and the game changed yet again.

It was no longer a game at all. He’d leave in the morning, and Sophie would let him go. That was how matters would conclude, no matter what joy or pleasure they wrung from the night.

She spent a long, sweet moment curled against him, his hands making slow patterns on her back. Against her belly, she felt the length of his erection—firm, warm, and undeniable, but passive.

“I will miss you, Vim Charpentier.”

“This comforts me a little, Sophie, though I’d never want to cause you upset. I will miss you too.”

They’d said the same words just a few hours ago, but here in the dark, nothing between them at all, the sentiments took on a different, more poignant weight. Sophie pushed his hair off his forehead, and with her hand on his crown, set her lips to his.

She put as much longing and wishing into her kiss as she knew how, but as he tasted her in return, she felt Vim shift the kiss to something deeper, closer. His hand moved slowly on her bare back, mapping bone, muscle, and sinew.

Sophie had the sense he was memorizing the feel of her even as his tongue traced the shape of her lips.

“Go easy, Sophie.” He murmured the words against her neck. Sophie felt his nose grazing her ear, then he was levering her up so she hung over him. That same nose nuzzled at her breast.

“Vim… I want…”

“Yes.” He closed his mouth over her nipple, drawing in a slow, wicked rhythm that ignited all manner of need deep in Sophie’s body.

In her womb. She cradled the back of his head in her palm, holding him to her as she tried to adjust to what cascaded through her.

Tenderness certainly, unbearable tenderness for the man giving her such pleasure, but also desire. Hot, needy, unfamiliar, and for the first time, welcome.

“Move on me, Sophie. Pleasure yourself.”

He arched up, snugging the length of his erection right against her sex.

Move on me, Sophie.

She wanted to move; she wanted to grind herself down on him, to consume him bodily, to have him—to have him—deep inside her body.

“Like this.” Vim’s hands settled on her hips, and he guided her along his length, a slow, wet sweep and return that had Sophie groaning softly.

It wasn’t tidy, but it was… God in heaven… It was beyond words.

When she’d found a rhythm, his hands glided away, one to her breast, one to wrap around her lower back. He guided her, and yet he exerted no demands at all.

“Take your time.” The words were just above a whisper, sinking into Sophie’s brain through a haze of pleasure and growing bewilderment. “Take all night if you need to.”

This was not copulation. Sophie had been raised with five brothers, she’d spent plenty of time in the barns and stables and mews at her family’s various holdings. This was not copulation.

She could not think beyond that, for her body was beginning to throb with a low, hot want that connected Vim’s fingers on her nipples with his mouth on hers and with the hard length of his arousal tight against her sex.

She desperately tried to keep the sensations separate, to be catalogued and savored one body part and memory at a time, but her boundaries were collapsing.

“Vim, I can’t… I’m not…” She couldn’t think, couldn’t seize words from the maelstrom Vim’s male body was brewing in hers.

“Let go, Sophie. Fly, soar—I’ll catch you.”

He touched her, used his thumb on a part of her Sophie did not know what to call, a small scrap of flesh at the apex of her sex that abruptly commanded every bit of her attention.

“What are you…?”

“Hush, Sophie, my love. I’ll catch you…”

That simple, knowing caress of his thumb had Sophie catapulting right out of her body into a cataclysm of pleasure and wonder and light that went on and on. She heard herself making some sort of sound—a sigh, a groan, a wordless plea—but Vim did not cease his attentions until she was panting and limp where she hung above him, braced on her arms.

“My… Goodness. Oh, my goodness.”

She had flown, she had soared; in his arms she had broken free of every earthly weight—sorrow, loneliness, propriety, familial expectations, her own body. Past, present, and future had all dissolved in the blinding pleasure of his embrace.

“Hold me tight, Sophie.” The words were a hoarse whisper against her throat.

She mustered wits enough to anchor her arm under his neck, abruptly aware that while she had endured unimaginable pleasure, he had not.

This was still not copulation, but he moved against her as if it were, used the slick friction of her sex on his rigid length to pelt her body with aftershocks of sensation that made clinging to him not merely possible, but as necessary as breath. She felt the same blinding pleasure gathering again even as Vim’s hand at the base of her spine anchored her tightly to him.

“God in heaven, Sophie…”

Damp heat spread between them as Sophie was again seized with convulsions low in her body—shorter, sharper, and if anything, more intense than the previous bout. He kept their bodies seamed tightly until Sophie was panting against his neck, reeling and dizzy even as a part of her still floated in a cloud of pleasure.

“You.” Vim kissed her cheek, leaving Sophie to wonder what exactly she’d heard in his voice: Affection, most definitely, a little wonder, and maybe something else—regret?

She snuggled in closer, wanting nothing except to hold him to her and be held by him.

“You soared for me, Sophie Windham. Soared high, if I’m not mistaken.”

“So high I could no longer see the earth.”

“Good.” His hand trailed over her hair. “That’s good.”

He fell silent, his hand moving on her in a languid caress that had Sophie’s eyes drifting closed.

She did not want to fall asleep. She wanted to treasure these moments, this lovely, warm, undreamt of intimacy with a man who tickled a foundling baby just to see the child smile.

A man who would be leaving in the morning.

***

Vim’s mind fractured in the haze of sexual satiety, impressions coming to him piecemeal and yet with a certain immediacy: The weight of Sophie’s body pressed to his chest as she fought sleep.

The softening length of his cock amid the heat and carnal mess he’d created between their bellies.

The sheer, sensual pleasure of stroking her hair.

From the morass of emotion and sensory information stewing in his brain, he discerned three reasons why he had not taken fullest advantage of the pleasures Sophie had offered.

First, to assure himself there had been no permanent consequences of such an act necessitating his having to stay in touch with her.

She was different from other women in several regards: he wanted to spend time with her, not just in bed, but in the parlor, in the kitchen, in the stables. He liked simply to watch her, whether she was tending the baby, puttering with her baking, or braiding up her hair by the light of the dying fire. This difference might have borne potential for a broader relationship, except Sophie wasn’t looking for marriage.

And while Vim had to admit marriage to Sophie would be highly problematic—she would want to dwell here in the south, among her family, when just visiting in Kent was a rare act of will for him—her indifference in this regard still rankled.

When a man was best advised to forget a woman, staying in touch with her was not wise.

The second reason he’d denied them both the pleasure of intimate joining had to do with the first: it was going to be hard enough to put these days with Sophie in a memory box without adding to the list the recollection of spending his seed in her sweet female heat. The third reason was purely practical, and the most compelling: if he made love to her truly, fully, without restraint, he was nearly certain leaving her would be impossible.

He’d made a colossal fool of himself over a woman once before, and once was more than enough.

Sophie lifted her head and pushed the remains of her braid over her shoulder. “I should check on the baby.”

“I’ll do that. I need to tidy up, in any case.”

She frowned at him. “I don’t know what comes now with you. Do we roll over and go to sleep? Will you seek your own bed?”

He could sense her trying to make her brain function on the strength of mental determination, but he could also hear the vulnerability lurking in her question.

“I’ll fetch you a cloth and check on Kit, and then we’ll talk.”

Relief registered in the way her mouth curved up. God in heaven, did she think he’d just wander off down the freezing hall and drift away to sleep when she was here, warm and cozy, his seed still scenting her flesh?

He fished at the foot of the bed for his dressing gown but didn’t belt it, letting the cold air blow some sense into his befogged brain. For a woman intent on casual pleasures, Sophie Windham had a certain artlessness, as if it had been a long time between frolics, or as if her previous liaisons hadn’t done much for her confidence.

He knew from experience all it took was a little bad fortune, and confidence could be hard to restore. Man, woman, old, young, it made no difference. Part of him wanted to ask her about it, and part of him refused to entertain the idea lest she pry reciprocal confidences from him.

He let himself into his room, pleased to find Kit was snoring gently in the cradle.

“A pony it is, then. A fat little piebald who’ll jump anything, provided you’ve set a course for the barn. You shall call him something presuming, Bucephalus, or Orion, but he’ll have a pet name when you’re private.”

Vim tidied himself up in a few brisk movements, lifted the cradle, and returned to Sophie’s room.

He built up her fire, wrung out a flannel, and hung it on the screen to warm while trying not to contemplate what his pet names for Sophie would be.

Love. My love. He’d called her that already. Sweetheart. My dear.

When he parted the bed curtains, he half expected her to be asleep, but she lay on her back, regarding him solemnly in the shifting firelight. Vim moved the covers off her carefully and started swabbing at the stickiness drying on her belly.

“This is intimate.” She spoke quietly, her gaze following the movements of his hand. “But we could have been more intimate, couldn’t we?”

Vim tossed the cloth in the general direction of the privacy screen. “Women are the braver of the two genders.” He climbed under the covers and settled on his back. “They will discuss anything quite openly, while men go to war to avoid the near occasion of these discussions. Come here.”

She cuddled along his side, her head on his shoulder. “Not all men are such cowards.”

“It isn’t cowardice, exactly. We’re just formed differently. It’s manly reserve.”

Her hand drifted over his abdomen, counting his ribs and threatening his manly reserve. There was a quality to Sophie Windham’s touch he hadn’t encountered before, as if her hand were attached to her thinking brain, sending it information in some form other than words and images.

It was a lovely touch—tender, sweet, soothing and arousing at once.

“We did not quite…” She drew in a breath. “You did not want to join with me.”

“For God’s sake.” He buried his lips in her hair, wanting to both laugh and… something else. Throw something breakable, perhaps. Several somethings. “Of course I wanted to. I want to this very moment, but such behavior has consequences, Sophie. Sometimes those consequences are permanent, such as the consequence now slumbering in that cradle by the hearth.”

She was quiet, placated, he hoped, though she was female, and silence could mean all manner of things where they were concerned.

“I care for you, Sophie. I care for you far more than I want a passing moment of oblivion in your arms.” It came out irritably, but he felt her smile against the bare skin at the side of his chest. A peculiar sensation from a surprisingly sensitive place on his body.

Her hand drifted lower, cupping his stones then closing along his length.

“Go to sleep, Sophie Windham.” But he didn’t move her hand.

“We’ve talked, then?”

“I have talked. Bared my damned soul. Don’t suppose there are confessions you’d like share with me?”

Another smile. “I care for you too.”

“Excellent. Now may we go to sleep?”

“Of course.”

And this was fortunate, because a few more minutes of her casual exploration, her fulminating silence, and Vim’s own conscience hammering away at the remnants of sexual satisfaction, and he might have been telling the woman he loved her, which would not do at all.

He was leaving in the morning, and stirring declarations of heartfelt sentiment weren’t going to make that parting any easier, no matter how true those declarations might be.

***

Sophie was coming to the conclusion that a wish half granted was worse than a wish denied.

Vim cared for her. He would not lie about such a thing, but it was tantamount to saying he did not love her. There had been a little ironic satisfaction in giving the words back to him, but only a little.

And more than a little misery too. The physical glories he’d shown her had been magnificent, though contemplating such behaviors on a casual basis left Sophie bewildered. Such a thing could never be casual to her, and she wished—such a troublesome word—they could never be casual to Vim, either.

“Though the whole business means nothing to you, does it?” She lifted Kit from the sofa, where she’d seen to his nappy after a big breakfast of porridge with apples and stewed carrots. “Will you miss him too?”

Kit swung his tiny paw in the general direction of Sophie’s nose, catching her chin.

“That much? You don’t want him to go, either, do you?” She hugged the child to her, feeling foolishly comforted. The baby would be leaving too, though she would wait to face that loss until her brothers showed up.

Her brothers, who were already overdue.

“What has you looking so solemn?” Vim appeared in the parlor doorway, his traveling satchel in hand. He did not look solemn; he looked rested and ready to be on his way.

“I am concerned for you. I doubt the coaches are running clear to Kent.”

“I’ll find one leaving the city then hire a horse if I have to. For all we know, the storm was fairly local, and the going might get easier south of Town.”

“You will be careful?”

My goodness, she sounded like a wife—fussing for form’s sake when there was really no need to fuss. Vim set his satchel down and closed the parlor door behind him.

“Sophie Windham, put that child down and come here.”

“You are forever telling me to come here,” she replied, but she put the baby on the floor amid his blankets.

“And now I am going away, so humor me.” He held out his arms, and she went into his embrace. “I will not forget you, Sophie. These few days with you and Kit have been my true Christmas.”

“I will worry about you.” She held on to him, though not as tightly as she wanted to.

“I will keep you in my prayers, as well, but, Sophie, I’ve traveled the world for years and come to no harm. A London snowstorm will not be the end of me.”

Still, she did not step back. A lump was trying to form in her throat, much like the lumps that formed when she’d seen Devlin or Bart off after a winter leave. She felt his chin resting on her crown, felt her heart threatening to break in her chest.

“I must go to Kent,” he said, his hands moving over her back. “I truly do not want to go—Kent holds nothing but difficult memories for me—but I must. This interlude with you…”

She hardly paid attention to his words, focusing instead on his touch, on the sound of his voice, on the clean bergamot scent of him, the warmth he exuded that seeped into her bones like no hearth fire ever had.

“…Now let me say good-bye to My Lord Baby.”

He did not step back but rather waited until Sophie located the resolve to move away from him. This took a few moments, and yet he did not hurry her.

“Say good-bye to Mr. Charpentier, Kit.” She passed him the baby, who gurgled happily in Vim’s arms.

“You, sir, will be a good baby for Miss Sophie. None of that naughty baby business—you will remain healthy, you will begin to speak with the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ you will take every bath Miss Sophie directs you to take, you will not curse in front of ladies, nor will you go romping where you’re not safe. Do you understand me?”

“Bah!”

“Miss Sophie, you’re going to be raising a hellion.” He smiled at the baby and leaned down, so his adult beak was in range of Kit’s failing hands. “I cannot leave. I’m about to be taken prisoner.” He spoke with his nose in Kit’s grasp. “I promised the boy a pony when he learns his letters.”

“I’ll see to it. My brothers will aid me in this if I ask it.”

Vim straightened, gently tucking the child’s hand away. “I wish I could be the one providing that aid, Sophie.” He advanced on her, wrapping his free arm around her while he yet held the baby with the other. “I wish a great deal that isn’t very practical.”

She let herself be held for just a moment longer, for the last statement was marginally of more comfort than being told he cared for her. Sophie took one last whiff of the warmth and male fragrance of him. “Wishes can be quite inconvenient.”

Vim passed her the baby, kissed her cheek, and picked up his satchel. “Don’t see me out, Sophie. Stay here warm and snug, cuddle this baby, and know that I will never forget you.”

She nodded, willing herself not to cry. “We’ll be fine, but thank you so much for… for everything.”

He kissed her cheek again and withdrew, quietly closing the parlor door behind him. A moment later, she went to the window and watched his progress across the snowy expanse of the back gardens. He moved easily, a man used to dealing with the elements, a man very likely relieved to be on his way.

The sun was out, making the snow sparkle with painful brightness. When Vim got to the back gate, he turned amid all that sunshine, and his gaze sought out the parlor window.

Sophie waved, and emulating the idiot gesture of mothers everywhere, raised Kit’s hand in a little wave too. Vim blew them a kiss, slipped through the gate, and disappeared.

She could not stand there, staring at the gate, at the brilliant sunshine, and she could not remain in the parlor that held so many lovely memories. But then, there were memories in the kitchen too, and the bedrooms, and the pantries, and even the bathing chamber.

So she got the baby comfortable in the steamy confines of the laundry, where the windows did not look out on the garden, where she could boil up laundry until her shoulders ached and her hands were red.

Where she could cry in peace.

***

“There is no goddamned way we’re going to make London today, possibly not even tomorrow.” St. Just checked his horse’s girth and glanced at his brothers. For men who’d never been on campaign, they traveled well, even under the circumstances.

“Their Graces will worry,” Val said, patting his chestnut’s neck. “Sophie ought to be comfortable enough, though.”

Westhaven’s lips pursed where he sat on his horse. “My backside is not comfortable in the least. I tell myself to be grateful we’re not dealing with rain and mud, but a cold saddle is only a little less miserable.”

“You should have let me fit a sheepskin under the ducal arse,” St. Just said, swinging onto his horse. “Baby Brother wasn’t so proud.”

Val climbed aboard too, settling onto the sheepskin cushion St. Just had fashioned the night before. “It helps with that initial, ball-shriveling shock of cold when your backside first lands in the saddle. You ought to try it, Westhaven.”

“Perhaps tomorrow, if we’re indeed to be traveling another day.”

“We could push it,” St. Just said as they moved away from the inn where they’d eaten a luncheon of bread, cheese, and ale. “But everybody’s tale is the same: move south, and the snow is navigable. Move west, and the drifts are several feet deep in places.”

“So we give it another day to melt and continue working south.” Val’s gaze went to the perfect azure sky making the day appear much warmer than it was. “At least I got a violin out of it. A little Christmas present for having been a very good boy.”

This comment was too worthy of reply to be ignored, so St. Just, cheerfully abetted by Westhaven, spent the next five miles teasing their baby brother about just how good he’d been. This led the way to a lengthy discussion regarding Christmases past, naughty deeds, pranks, and family memories.

St. Just watched the sun sink and gave thanks that this campaign was so much more joyous than others he’d endured in the past. No, they would not make London in the limited daylight available, and they possibly wouldn’t on the next day, either, but he was with his brothers, traveling in relative comfort, and all was right with the world.

“Do you recall the year His Grace thought Sophie should have a pet rabbit for Christmas?” he asked his brothers.

“And Bart told her it was headed for the stew pot. I thought she’d brain him senseless,” Westhaven supplied. “I do believe it’s the only time I’ve heard Her Grace laugh out loud.”

“But we didn’t tease our sisters quite as mercilessly after that,” Val pointed out.

“Sophie has her ways,” St. Just said. “To this day, a man does not cross her with impunity.”

The talk drifted to various neighbors and other sisters before Westhaven was again complaining that his ass had frozen to the saddle, and this was hardly how the heir to a dukedom expected to spend his holidays.

When next they paused to rest the horses, his brothers washed his handsome face with snow for that nonsense.

***

All day long, as Vim’s toes turned to distant, frozen memories, the wind chapped his cheeks and nose, and the food Sophie had packed for him disappeared into a bottomless well of cold and hunger, he mentally kicked himself.

He should not have left Sophie to contend with that baby by herself. She was brave and sensible but a novice when it came to babies.

He should have escorted her to the cozy, well-staffed home of some titled acquaintance and set about courting her—a display of his connections in polite society accompanied by discreet indications of his wealth would have been a nice place to start.

He should have waited for better weather to leave Town, weather fine enough that he could take Kit with him to Sidling, where the boy could be raised up secure and safe in any number of useful professions.

He should have told her that whatever her station in life—cook, housekeeper, companion, governess, whatever, it mattered naught to him so long as she exchanged it for the position of his baroness.

And for variety, he’d occasionally curse himself for tarrying in London, at all. If he hadn’t put off going to Kent to the very last minute, he’d be cozy and snug at Sidling right now, listening to his aunt explain the subtleties of chess to a man who’d been letting his wife beat him at the game for half a century.

And finally, when he lost sensation in his fingers, the food was gone, and darkness starting to fall, he admitted he should have made love to Sophie when they’d had the chance. He should have put aside all the rotten memories he carried courtesy of the last female he’d pursued in the Yule season, gotten together his courage, and made such passionate love to Sophie that she couldn’t bear to let him go.

This thought coalesced in his brain just as his foot went sideways beneath him in the snow and he pitched headfirst into a fluffy drift at least four feet deep.