An all-new holiday romance anthology is AVAILABLE NOW from four outstanding authors, and I have a sneak peek from one of the stories in the collection—The Duke of Christmas Present by Sarah MacLean—an emotional second chance romance between two childhood lovers who reunite after twelve years of separation.
Some might say that it is I who should be avoiding you.”
Eben looked up from his desk and over his shoulder to Jack, standing in the door of his study, holding a plate in one hand. “I am not avoiding you.”
One perfectly arched brow rose in disbelief, and she came into the room. “No?”
“No,” he growled, turning back to his ledger, leaning low enough to block his view of her with a towering pile of reports, and willing the lie away. “I’ve work to do.”
“On Christmas Day.”
“Yes. On Christmas Day. Every day,” he replied. “I’ve responsibilities.
Isn’t that why you left me in the first place?”
“No,” she said quietly. “It’s not.”
Then why the hell had she left him?
He’d be damned if he was going to ask. He attempted to focus on the line of numbers in front of him, willing his brain to calculate the number of livestock on the ducal estate in Wales. It was a sheep farm, resurrected from the dead, once barely running for the debt of the estate, and now providing a significant portion of the Queen’s wool.
Was it possible that significant portion came from only thirteen sheep?
Goddammit. Jack was ruining his mathematical skill.
He looked over his shoulder once more and fairly snarled, “Don’t you have a meal to prepare?”
She did not blink. “Are you sorry that Mr. Lawton cannot get home?”
“Of course I am, though I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
She leaned against the doorjamb, as though she belonged there. And Christ, she looked as though she belonged there. Enough that Eben was tempted to make a habit of drinking. “Or are you just sorry that you cannot go with him?”
Guilt flared, and along with it, irritation. “I don’t want to go with him. There’s nothing I want less than to spend the day playing the charming duke.”
“Oh,” she said casually, “I did not know you had charming in your repertoire.”
He scowled at her. “I loathe holidays.”
“You didn’t used to.”
That was before you left. “That was a long time ago.”
She nodded, and he wondered if he could pay her to leave. He’d happily give up the lion’s share of his fortune for the guarantee that he’d never see her again.
The idea that he might never see her again was like poison. One day with her, and twelve years without her seemed to have disappeared.
“It occurs that Mr. Lawton might think you more than your title if he’s come to fetch you for Christmas dinner.”
He returned his attention to his ledger and grunted a response.
She pressed on. “One might think he considers you a friend.”
“He likes the money we make.”
A pause. Then, “Perhaps. How did you come to be partners?”
Eben had needed money. “He was running the most successful mercantile on the docks. He had a keen understanding of what sailors wanted when they disembarked after long journeys, and he was looking to expand.”
The fact that Eben’s money hadn’t been good enough for aristocratic partners had been a gift of fate; Lawton was a brilliant businessman who hadn’t thought twice about Eben’s past, knowing that money from a failed dukedom spent as well as money from anywhere else.
“We worked well together.” An understatement. They now owned a significant number of businesses at the dockside, and one of the largest overland transport companies in Britain.
“You must be very proud.”
He paused at that. Pride had never been a part of it. He’d felt many things in the years since he and Lawton went into business together—determination, relief, gratitude—but never pride. He’d only ever been proud of one thing.
And then he’d lost her.
He pushed the thought away. “I am satisfied.”
Her lips twisted in a wry smile. “So satisfied that you are working on Christmas Day.”
He ignored the point, pretending to be riveted to his ledger, willing her to leave.
It did not work. “I am happy you have a friend, Eben.”
That word again, so foreign. Something he hadn’t even considered before she said it, as it had been so long since he’d had a friend. “I have a business partner.”
“One with whom you would have spent Christmas dinner.”
“Under duress. Thank goodness for snowstorms.”
“Don’t be so quick with your gratitude; now you’re spending Christmas dinner with me.”
He remained focused on his papers, hating the pleasure the verbal sparring gave him. “There’s still time for you to change your mind and go home.”
Her laughter was soft and surprised, barely there, and warmed him to the bone. Not that he would admit that to anyone.
After a long pause, she said, “I shall make you a deal, Eben. I shall leave you alone, collect my aunt, and return to our home, if you’ll tell me one thing.”
“Anything.” Anything to end the torture of her presence. The regret that consumed him. The want. He repeated himself, desperate to be rid of her and the way she haunted him. “Anything.”
“Tell me what you were thinking of when you insisted you’d done frivolous things.”
He might have thought he was willing to give up anything for her to leave, but answering that question would give up his whole self. It would require him to give voice to a memory he did not think he could suffer.
Certainly not with her there, standing before him. “Nothing.”
“We both know that isn’t true.”
He looked back at the ledger. “Stay then. I care not.”
She did stay. Worse, she came closer. He could hear her skirts brushing against the carpet. Against her legs. And then, as though she’d been invited—as though she owned the damn place—she set the plate down smack in the center of his ledger and sat across from him.
For a single, mad moment, it occurred to Eben that she might own the damn place. That she might own him. Still.
He pointed at the covered plate with the nib of his pen. “What is that?”
He didn’t want her baking for him. Baking made him think of her hands. And thinking of her hands made him think of the way she moaned when he kissed the inside of her wrist, and that wasn’t productive at all. “I don’t want it.”
“I see the years have made you ever more gracious.”
He met her eyes and said, pointedly. “I don’t want it, thank you.”
She sat back, altogether too comfortable with his unwelcoming demeanor, and picked at a speck on her skirts before saying, “It’s a special recipe. It will help with your head.”
He scowled. “There’s nothing wrong with my head.”
Her reply was under her breath, and he heard it nonetheless. “That is debatable.”
“Will you leave if I eat it?”
She smirked. “A duke can dream.”
He tossed the cloth from the plate and raised a biscuit to his mouth, taking an enormous, forceful bite, as though to prove to her that he was willing to do anything to get her to leave.
And immediately regretted it.
“Good God,” he said, around the bite. “That’s disgusting.” He stood and went to the sideboard to pour himself a glass of water. After drinking deeply, he added. “Truly foul.”
Her eyes went wide. “There’s no need to be rude.”
“It’s not rude if it’s true.”
“It’s absolutely rude if it’s true.”
He could still taste whatever horrid addition had been made to the innocent biscuit. “Blech. What did you do to it?”
She cast a sidelong glance at the offending plate. “It’s a family secret.”
“It should be kept as such.”
Her lips twitched at that. “It can’t be that bad.”
“I assure you, it can be.” He returned to the desk and lifted the plate toward her.
She rolled her eyes and reached forward, accepting a biscuit with misplaced bravado. When she took a bite, her own eyes went wide, and she offered a little cough around the cookie. “Mmmm.”
He fought the urge to smile. “Delicious?”
She gave a forced nod, one belied by the watering of her eyes.
“At least now I know you weren’t attempting to poison me.”
“Would you believe it is a peace offering?”
“The only way I shall find peace today is if you and your aunt find your way back through your secret passageway.”
“She doesn’t know about the secret passageway.”
He stilled. “She doesn’t?”
“No. No one does. She came through the back door.” She paused.
Then, “I’ve never told anyone about it.”
He hadn’t either. It had been their secret. He’d never wanted to share it with anyone but her. Not even now, years after the last time he’d used it. Still, he could not stop himself from asking, “Why not?”
She looked away. “I suppose I never wanted anyone to take it away.”
An ache throbbed in his chest. “You haven’t used it in twelve years.”
She smiled a small, winsome smile. Sad and full of secrets. “That doesn’t mean that I haven’t wished to.”
The words nearly stopped his heart. Had she wished to? Had she wanted to come to him? No. It was impossible. “I am to believe you thought about that doorway while you were wandering Pamplona? Climbing the Acropolis? Exploring Pompeii?”
She leaned forward, her fingers toying with the antique abacus on his desk. “Especially Pompeii.”
“I suppose that is meant to be amusing.” All that time, while she’d been off seeing the world, he’d been here, working. Missing her. Longing for her. Pressing his goddamned ear to the goddamned door and begging the universe to restore her to the other side. Willing the knob to turn. He’d have done anything for her to open that door. And she was making jokes.
“It wasn’t meant to be amusing,” she said.
“What was it, then?”
She hesitated, and he nearly lost his mind in the stretch of silence before she said, “When Vesuvius erupted, the people of Pompeii had no time to escape the volcano’s wrath. Thousands of them knew what was to come, and they knew they had no choice but to surrender to it.” She paused, sliding one ebony bead from one side of the abacus to the other. “While there, you cannot help but wonder how they chose to spend their last minutes. There’s no way to know, but mothers must have cradled their children. Friends must have taken each other’s hands. And lovers must have…” She trailed off.
No. She couldn’t stop there. Not with his heart pounding in his chest for the first time in twelve years.
“What must they have done?”
She shook her head. “They knew they would die. They would have turned to each other. Faced it together.” She met his gaze, her brown eyes swimming with tears. “They would have chosen each other.”
Memory, preserved in ash.
“So, yes. I thought about the doorway in Pompeii.”
She stood then and made for the exit, her words echoing around him like an explosion. Destroying him. At least, he thought they did, but there was something left to be wrecked when they were done, because she finished the job when she turned back, halfway to the door, met his gaze, and said, “I thought about the doorway, just as you thought about snowflakes.”
The words pulled him from his chair, full of anger and frustration and the keen knowledge that no one would ever know him the way she did, no matter how hard he wished her ignorant of him.
Because he had thought of the damn snowflakes. Every moment of his life that was worth remembering had to do with her. Then she’d left him, going off to her future, to see the world and live her life and fall in love with another. And he’d remained here, alone, stuck in the muck of the past with nothing but the memory of her laughter and her joy and her kisses.
God, those kisses. They haunted him.
They haunted him, and he hated the memory of them. Almost as much as he loved it.
But he’d be damned if he’d let them haunt him any longer.
He bore down on her, half-hoping that she would flee. Half-hoping that she wouldn’t let him reach her. That she wouldn’t let him pull her into his arms. That she wouldn’t let him kiss her.
She didn’t flee, though. She was proud and strong and brave as ever.
She stood at the center of his study, watching him come for her. And when he did reach her, all she did was raise her chin in pure, unadulterated
A challenge he met with agony and pleasure.
She didn’t resist him. Instead, she melted into him, coming up on her toes to meet his lips with the same wild frustration he felt. His hands came to her face, tilting her up to him as he took control of the moment, as he claimed her with all the aching desire he’d held for her for years.
Christ, he’d missed her so much. He’d missed her smile and her eyes and this… her stunning, free, abandoned kissing. This kissing that had always cracked him open and filled him with hope and joy and freedom.
She sighed into the caress, her hands coming to his arms, her fingers digging into his muscles there, using him as leverage to stretch up and kiss him back.
The Duke of Christmas Present © 2018 by Sarah MacLean. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.