Three Kisses Till Christmas by Charlie Lane

Chapter 1

Mistletoe was meant for kissing, and as Evelina hung the last sprig in the hall, certainty settled in her belly. She’d have her first kiss since Edmund’s death right there. Tonight. She could not have asked for a better setting. Candlelight flickered, casting shadows on the dark walls not yet festooned with holly and greenery. The chilly air nipped gooseflesh up and down her arms. But warmth spilled out of the open doorways where fires flickered in rooms soon to be crowded with everyone from the village and even as far away as London.

True, the villagers warned that hanging any sort of festive greenery, including mistletoe, before Christmas would bring bad luck, but Evelina did not hold with superstitions.

The holly boughs could wait, but she needed the mistletoe now.

The first night of the yearly Christmas gathering always unfolded the same. Everyone arrived together, filling the house with warmth and light, and those with nowhere else to go stayed until Christmas Day had come and gone, shaking off their loneliness in the hours when cheer and camaraderie were needed most. They gathered to relieve their loneliness, if only for a few days.

But Evelina needed a more permanent remedy for her loneliness. That’s what the mistletoe was for.

Timothy, the local curate, would likely arrive first, shuffling through the door, holding his hat in both hands before him, turning it round and round with anxious fingers. Endearing man, always so unsure. Perhaps if they wed, Evelina could inspire a bit of confidence in him.

She straightened the mistletoe hanging from the sloped ceiling and flicked one of its white berries. Then she straightened her skirts and sat in the alcove’s window seat. The night outside burned dark against the cold panes, unrelieved by white flecks. No snow. But it had smelled like snow that morning. She sighed. The empty sky suggested her nose was wrong. Too bad. She adored snow.

And yet, perhaps its absence offered a positive sign. She didn’t want to think of Edmund while choosing her next husband, and he had loved the snow, too. Edmund had been her best friend and lover, and his loss still stung, nearly two years later. There was no replacing him. She would not even try.

And yet, it was time to marry again. She felt that truth like steady beat of her heart. Loneliness had seeped into her bones like the winter cold. She had her mother and father, but they had each other. Her siblings were all happily married and living far away. She was an interloper in her childhood home. No, she was a ghost, not fully her former self and not fully alive. Lonely and waiting.

But she did not have to wait. Three men had expressed their interest in her. She’d been hesitant before, but no longer. This house party had been established decades ago to relieve the loneliness of solitary travelers during Christmas. And she would let it relieve her loneliness, too.

Muffled noises from the doorway popped her to her feet. She peeked around the edge of the alcove and down the long hallway toward the front door.

Timothy stood, rotating his hat round and round, head bobbing a shy greeting to the butler who bustled him down the hall and into the parlor. She held her breath. But not for long. Soon, Tom, one of their footmen, exited the parlor, Timothy at his heels. As they approached, the curate’s frown grew clearer.

Evelina took a deep breath. “It’s up to you now,” she informed the mistletoe. “I expect your best work. I’ll do my part, but you simply must supply the magic. Oh, hello, Timothy!” She smiled brightly and stepped to the side, ushering him into the alcove.

The curate’s face softened. “Mrs. Denby. Are you ill this evening?”

“Oh, no! Not at all. I’m sorry if my summons scared you. I did not intend to do so.”

He nodded. “It did a bit. It is not … usual to be summoned so.” His unsaid words rang between them. It was unusual to be summoned to a shadowed, private alcove away from the other guests. He was too polite to say anything that might impugn her honor, the dear man. “The manor looks right jolly, Evelina. Bright and cheerful.”

“Thank you.” She chuckled. His compliment meant much to her. She adored Christmas and the joy it brought no matter how many tragedies befell her.

Timothy’s eyes flicked toward the window seat. He likely wished to sit. The man enjoyed his comfort and didn’t much care for physical exertion of any kind. But being a gentleman, he would not sit while she stood.

And Evelina would not sit. She stayed exactly where she was, directly beneath the mistletoe. “Thank you for coming this evening. I know you do not like large crowds.”

“No. But”—his eyes warmed—“I don’t mind if I get to speak with you.”

Lovely man, not a bit aloof and grumpy, unlike some overly tall aristocratic men she knew. Better not to speak of him. Or think of him. He’d been invited, but he wouldn’t come.

She grinned at Timothy. “Such a pretty compliment. Thank you.”

He nodded, glanced about the room, went to twirl his hat but remembered he’d given it to the butler.

She needed to set him at ease. He was best when comfortable. But how? She looked up. He did enjoy erudite subjects. “Do you know the history of mistletoe?”

His face scrunched up in thought. “I know a bit. Maids and footmen like to—ahem—kiss beneath it.” The word kiss hissed out between his lips, and his tone revealed he did not overly care for the practice.

Perhaps she should have inquired beforehand, bringing the topic up during one of their weekly conversations. She’d remain cheery, though. No reason not to. “My father says he kissed my mother for the first time beneath a sprig just like that. It’s”—she tilted her head to the side, thinking—“romantic.” She turned her brightest smile on him.

Timothy’s eyes widened. He glanced up, swallowed hard, and clasped his hands behind his back. Oh dear, she’d made him even more nervous. Getting Timothy to kiss her beneath the mistletoe was proving more difficult than she’d expected. She’d known for quite some time he held a tendre for her. He’d been on the brink of proposing a time or two.

But she’d stopped him. She’d had to stop him. Because she’d never kissed him, and how would she know if she should agree to a lifelong commitment if she had no idea how his kisses made her feel?

Edmund’s kisses had been quite nice—warm and soft and comforting. The few suitors she’d had before him had graced her with quite horrific kisses—slimy and hard and too much teeth.

She had to know what Timothy’s kisses were like.

And Robert’s.

And Patrick’s.

Three men likely to propose before they left the Christmas festivities in three days, but not before she tested them.

The deteriorating situation with Timothy called for a different approach. “I’ve been thinking about our conversation in the apple orchard last month.” When she’d stopped him from proposing.

“Really?” His shoulders loosened, and she could almost see his anxiety melt away, replaced by curiosity and a dash of cautious optimism. “When we, ah, spoke of a curate’s role in village life?”

She nodded. “Precisely. I think you are correct in your arguments of that day.”


“The curate’s need for a wife.”

“Ah. I see. It was my understanding we had, ah, disparate views on that subject. But if we do not, I, ah, would very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter.” He stepped closer.

And Evelina had the sudden urge to step back, away from him and away from the mistletoe. But she rooted her feet to the floor, standing steady like the tree the mistletoe had been gathered from. How did she acquire a kiss without a promise of marriage? The question made her blush.

Awful woman, she chided herself.

Necessary, she argued back.

Both hers had a point. And, really, many a widow had done far worse than she was about to do. She would only entice a single little kiss, acquire just enough information to make an informed decision that would impact the rest of her life.

Then she would do it again tomorrow for another man.

And one last time on Christmas Eve. For a third man.

Awful woman.

Smart woman.

Oh, shush, she told herselves.

Guilt washed over her, yes, for stringing all three men along, but she missed the companionship of marriage. She missed having a bed partner. And she did want children, if she could. And all of that meant she needed a husband whose kisses she enjoyed. But not too much. She did not wish to cross the line from nice to passionate. She wished merely for a pleasant marital experience, nothing more.

Timothy’s hand touched her elbow, and she almost jumped out of her skin. “Ah!”

Timothy jumped back. “Gah!”

“You scared me.” She breathed deep to calm her racing heart.

He held the wrist of his hand that had touched her, as if burned. “You were woolgathering.”

“I’m so sorry. You have my whole attention now.” She stared deep into his eyes. They shone with kindness and curiosity, and she could not deceive him. She wished to marry and to do what she must to find the right man, but she would deceive no one. “Timothy, I will be direct with you. Since that day in the orchard, I have decided to take a husband, and I have wondered if you may still hold interest.”

His eyes widened, and so did his mouth, into a round O. That O curved into crescent smile. “I am honored.”

“I am afraid I am not done being direct.”

“Say what you must, Mrs. Denby.”

“There are other men I am considering, who have shown interest. And I am not yet sure who I will choose.”

His brow furrowed. “A conundrum.”


“Well, I am pleased you’ve decided to consider me among whoever the other fellows are. How shall you decide?”

She lifted her gaze pointedly upward.

He looked too, the dangling mistletoe gathering all their attention. “Ah. I see. It’s to be that, is it? Makes sense. It is a part of marriage and all.” He pulled at his cravat as he dropped his gaze to Evelina. “Would you”—he gulped and his voice shook—“mind if I kissed you?”

“I would very much like that.”

He blinked owlishly. “Yes? Yes, of course. You brought me here for nothing less. Ah.” He lightly clasped her elbow once more, dipped low—it was happening!—then pulled back. “Where, ah, where is the Marquess of Prescott?”

Her heart stopped. “The marquess?” Why should he wish to know of him? She shrugged a shoulder as if the mere mention of Prescott’s name did not unbalance her. “I’m sure I don’t know. Presumably, he’s in London, but where in London remains a mystery to all but himself and those with whom he is intimate.” And that did not include her. Not anymore. She tried not to show her disappointment. “His new wards have kept him busy for the last year or so.”

“So”—the curate’s eyes darted around the room as if the marquess would jump from around the corner and push him out the window—“he is, ah, not here at present, not one of your suitors? I had heard of his arrival.”

She chuckled, hiding her frustration. “Timothy, the marquess does not signify. He is not a suitor. You were … saying something?”

The curate hitched a shy smile, but he moved more confidently than before. His grasp on her arm tightened, just a bit, and when he bent over her this time he did not hesitate. No, he kissed her, and it was … huh. It was. It existed. It was a thing that was happening to her, but she could say little more than that for the experience. It lacked the comfort of Edmund’s kisses, the feeling of a pleasant diversion.

Timothy shivered, a fact she knew only vaguely since their bodies connected only at their lips and where his fingers touched her elbow. He pulled away, eyes closed, lips parted as if they’d never finished what they’d started. Or perhaps they had never truly started. That would explain the lack of … lack of … well, the lack, anyway.

He shivered again and opened his eyes. “Evelina,” he whispered. “Evelina.” He’d certainly felt something, though. He seemed stunned, unmoored. He looked the same way she felt anytime she heard his voice.

John Bartlett, the grumpy Marquess of Prescott, currently traipsing somewhere in London, though she knew not where. And definitely not about to jump out of the hallway and toss the curate out the window, as Timothy appeared to fear.

Hisvoice sent so many shivers through her, she lost the ability to stand. The last time they’d been near one another, she’d plonked into a chair and not even attempted to move from it until well after he’d left, taking his surly yet heartachingly handsome visage with him. His new wards had tumbled about them as they’d stared at each other in silence. She knew why she couldn’t speak—the shivers. But his silence remained a mystery.

What would it be like to kiss the marquess? Would he taste like something grumpy—cigars and coffee—or would he taste of something sweetly beautiful—citrus and cream? With his tall, muscled form, she’d want so much more than kisses, and that would lead nowhere she wanted to go. Prescott promised passion, and she could not have passion.

“Evelina,” Timothy said.

Oh, yes, she’d just been kissed. Timothy’s kisses would never offer passion. But one liked to know one was being kissed and caressed. There was a middle ground between barely there and overpowering. That’s where Evelina wanted her kisses to reside. Somewhere in a pleasant but forgettable middle.

“Timothy?” she asked.

“You will make a wonderful curate’s wiiiiiiaaaaaa … hm.” His eyes grew ever rounder as they focused on something over her shoulder.

“Am I interrupting?”

A shiver ripped through Evelina’s body as the gruff voice warmed the cool air. She didn’t need to turn around to know the Marquess of Prescott had arrived. The shivers told her well enough.