Sealed with a Yuletide Kiss by Sophie Barnes

December 1

A Drunken Christmas Escapade

Amanda set her oil lamp carefully on the side table next to the library door and adjusted the flame, brightening the space with a yellow glow. With the fire reduced to embers, the room was no longer as warm as it had been earlier in the evening, so she pulled her dressing gown tighter to ward off the chill. She glanced about, her gaze settling on the boughs of evergreen cut from a fir tree earlier in the day and tied with crimson ribbons as per her mother’s instructions.

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes to savor the rich scent of the pine. She loved Christmas and the atmosphere that accompanied it when Rambly Hall was filled with people. She just hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be seeing Peter again.

With a small sigh and an admonishing shake of her head, she padded across the floor to one of the bookcases and spotted the thick volume she sought almost instantly. Locating a stool, she pulled it toward her and stepped up on it. The added height wasn’t quite enough though, so she rose on her tiptoes, her right arm straining in order to reach the book she wanted. She almost had it – she was certain of it – if she could only…

The sound of the library door opening grabbed her attention. She instinctively turned, losing her balance in the process and falling onto the floor with a loud thud. “Umph!”

“Good God, Amanda. Are you all right?”

Amanda squeezed her eyes shut and nodded, praying the man of her dreams would leave it at that, walk away and forget he’d seen her in such a humiliating sprawl. Of course this was too much to hope for. Before she could manage a clever response, she felt Peter’s sturdy hands pulling her upright.

“What were you thinking?” He sounded as though he’d like to give her a good shake. “You could have been seriously injured.”

“I couldn’t sleep so I came to get a book, and I don’t believe I would have fallen if it hadn’t been for you.” She looked away from his familiar and much–too–handsome face. “You startled me.”

With a grunt of disapproval, he guided her to a chair, then went to the side table. “Would you care for a drink?” he asked, raising what looked like a bottle of sherry.

She steeled herself. Enjoying the company of the one man she was trying not to think about wasn’t exactly the best plan. A drink would indeed be welcome, however – especially after making such a complete cake of herself in his presence, but she wanted something stronger, and besides, she was tired of always being predictable.

“Thank you, but I’d rather have a brandy instead.” When Peter raised an eyebrow and parted his lips as if he meant to say something, she hastily added, “It is Christmas, after all.”

“Very well,” he agreed, abandoning the bottle of sherry in favor of a crystal carafe. He poured two fingers of the amber liquid into a pair of tumblers then handed her one. Amanda took it without hesitation, thanking him as he sat across from her. He frowned and asked, “Have you tried this before?”

Amanda shook her head. No, she had not, but the thought of having him in her house while her beautiful cousins showered him with attention – attention he’d happily returned – had upset her to the point where she would try anything to dull the longing in her heart.

“It may burn a little on the way down,” he warned with a crooked smile. “I advise you to take small sips until you grow accustomed to it.” Raising his glass, he added, “To friendship.”

To friendship.

Amanda gritted her teeth as she followed his lead, allowing her glass to clink against his. She nodded in acknowledgement of his toast, fearful any words she might speak would lack conviction. To friendship indeed. She wanted more than that, but would likely never have it. Irritation flared inside her and, forgetting his words of warning, she took a large gulp of her drink.

Oh dear Lord!

Her throat was aflame. She gasped, choked on her own breath, and finally coughed until tears sprang to her eyes and she thought her lungs might burst.

“Take another sip,” Peter said. He’d risen from his chair and was now slapping her back.

Where on earth was that gaping hole she wanted to swallow her up? Another sip of fire and brimstone. Was he mad?

“I assure you it will help.” He took the glass she’d somehow managed to place on a table and held it out to her. Tilting it slightly, she soon felt the strong drink biting at her lips, and she reluctantly opened her mouth, swallowing just a little.

To her astonishment, he was right. The drink that had disagreed with her only a moment earlier soothed her in its smaller quantity, allowing her to relax and enjoy the heat as it warmed her insides.

“Thank you,” she murmured, watching him carefully as he returned the glass to the table and sat.

He grinned. “In all the years I’ve known you, I don’t recall seeing you imbibe even once – not even with wine. That you would start now with brandy…” He moved to rise once more. “Perhaps I should fetch a glass of sherry for you after all.”

“No.” The word came out louder than she’d intended and was instantly met with a look of surprise. She swallowed hard to get herself under some measure of control. She’d last seen him at her coming out ball. He’d danced with her of course, but had not remained at the ball long enough to see her drink anything other than the glass of lemonade he’d offered her before making a hasty departure.

The fact that he still thought her a child struck her with such force she tossed back the last of the brandy, wincing only slightly this time.

Meeting Peter’s shocked gaze and taking a great deal of pleasure in having unsettled him, she smiled and said, “I do believe I’m learning to handle my liquor. Would you please be so kind as to give me a refill?”

Peter looked around, wary. “I don’t believe that’s a good idea, Amanda. I think you’ve had enough.”

“Nonsense,” she said, waving her hand to dismiss his concerns. She was starting to feel much better and idly wondered if it might have something to do with the brandy. Probably not. She’d heard of how silly people became when foxed. She didn’t feel like that in the least. Quite the opposite really – she felt confident and carefree.

Seeing he wasn’t about to oblige her, she got up and went to the sideboard herself, pausing only once along the way when an overwhelming feeling of faintness made her worry she might lose her footing – yet again. That simply wouldn’t do. She slowed her pace and thankfully reached her destination without incident.

Peter watched her go, noticing the exact moment when she stopped to steady herself. What the devil had come over her? He’d known her since she was in swaddling clothes, and getting foxed in the middle of the night behind closed doors – in the company of a bachelor no less – was completely out of character for her. She was demure and innocent, his best friend’s kid sister. Yet here she was, courting trouble.

He groaned, knowing he must do something to stop her from pouring herself another glass. If her brother or, heaven forbid, her father were to happen upon them like this, Peter would surely find himself drawn and quartered.

“Amanda, stop this at once,” he urged, aiming for a note of authority.

“Or what?” she asked, her fingers already curled around the neck of the carafe.

“Or I shall have no choice but to come over there and remove the carafe from you personally.” Was that really the best he could do? Even she looked skeptical as she offered him a sly smile and proceeded to pour. That did it. She gave him no choice but to act on his threat. So he rose, and in three easy strides he was before her. “May I please have your glass?”

With a small frown she leaned sideways and looked past him. “Oh dear,” she remarked. “It appears as though one of Mama’s decorations has undone itself from the ceiling.”

He automatically turned to look, not recognizing the trap she’d set before it was too late. When he returned his attention to her, he discovered she’d already tossed back the contents of her newly filled glass.

Despite his rising frustration he had to hand it to her – she did appear to have gotten good at handling her drink. Still, he would not stand for this insanity a moment longer. She was a genteel lady of breeding after all, and this lapse in judgment on her part was really too much.

“I cannot begin to imagine what might have brought this on, Amanda. You’re acting like a child and you’d do well to stop it this instant.”

Her eyebrows snapped together and he saw something then, something in her eyes that spoke of both sadness and…something he couldn’t quite place.

“I am not a child, Peter.”

The harshness with which she spoke surprised him so much he leaned back as if she’d struck him.

“I am eighteen years of age – old enough to marry and bear children if that is what I choose to do.”

It was his turn to feel affronted. He clenched and unclenched his hands, staring silently at her before he turned away in search of his own glass. He needed that brandy. Now.

Finishing off its contents, he gave her a sideways glance. She was still looking at him as if he were the devil incarnate, but her words… Christ. As if he hadn’t noticed she was no longer the child he’d given piggyback rides to years ago or the girl he’d laughed with while skipping stones. They’d rolled down grassy hills together, tossed snowballs after each other each winter, and shared inside jokes that were different – more personal somehow – than those he’d shared with her brother.

He’d been at her coming out ball and had danced with her because after all, that was the polite thing to do. As soon as the dance was over, however, he’d found her a glass of lemonade and fled. He was not supposed to notice the woman his childhood friend had turned into or how good she felt beneath his touch as he’d guided her in a country dance. Nor was he meant to appreciate the scent of her or to let himself wonder…

But God help him he’d wondered – repeatedly – ever since that night.

Consequently, he’d stayed away until now.

He expelled a heavy breath. He could never lay a hand on her unless he planned to make her his wife, but was that something she would want?

“Amanda, I…” he began, but his words faltered with uncertainty, and instead he just stood there, staring at her.

Laying himself bare before her like this could ruin everything – his friendship with her brother as well as that between their parents. It was a tremendous risk to take when he wasn’t certain of how she’d respond, so he kept silent instead, thinking of how to proceed when she suddenly laughed.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you speechless before,” she said, pouring more brandy into her glass and taking another sip.

Her skin had grown flushed and he could tell by the slur of her words that the alcohol had begun taking effect. She wasn’t herself and rather than standing here talking, he ought to do the responsible thing and get her to bed.

Instead he said, “You’ve never spoken to me about marriage or children before.”

She chuckled. “No, I suppose not.” Heading back toward her chair, she swayed a little, regained her balance, and plopped down onto the seat. She leaned back and said, “Then again, what reason would I have to discuss such matters with you? My father will eventually see to it that I marry a respectable gentleman. You needn’t concern yourself on that score.”

Was she mocking him? He wasn’t certain, though she did sound annoyed. He was getting rather annoyed himself thinking of her in the arms of some faceless man.

“Besides,” she continued. “You are busy enough right now. I wonder which of them you will pick.”

Her comment threw him. “I beg your pardon?”

“You didn’t think I’d notice your interest in my cousins?” There was no mistaking the bitterness in her tone this time, and he leaned forward with interest. “They’re truly stunning with their blonde hair and alabaster skin. I cannot fault you for being fascinated.”

“The drink has loosened your tongue too much, Amanda,” he said, irritated she would think he gave a damn about three women who were no different than all the rest. “You speak without thinking.”

“They like you too, you know,” she added, not heeding his warning in the least. He was about to reprimand her again and suggest she retire straightaway when a sad smile claimed her lips and she whispered beneath her breath, “Though not nearly as much as I.”

Peter stood for a moment, frozen, unable to move. Hell, he could barely breathe, much less focus on his thoughts. Had he heard her right? He believed so and began moving toward her – the woman he wanted by his side forever. The same woman who’d just confessed to liking him a great deal, even though it had taken a lot of brandy for her to pluck up the courage to say so.

“Would you mind repeating that?” he asked.

Her eyes met his, focused, then she suddenly leapt from her seat, her hand clasped across her mouth as she stepped away.

“It was nothing,” she gasped from behind her fingers, her glance darting toward the door as if she were calculating her chance of escape.

She obviously hadn’t realized she’d voiced her thoughts, or perhaps she just hadn’t counted on him hearing her. Whatever the case, she wasn’t deep enough in her cups not to know that her words changed everything between them. There was no going back now.

“It certainly wasn’t nothing,” he said, following her as she edged her way along one of the bookcases until she’d backed herself into a corner.

She shook her head. “Of course it was. I only meant that they do not know you as well as I do. After all, I’ve known you forever and I…I…” She had nowhere to go with him now before her, blocking her only exit.

Reaching out, he gently brushed her cheek with his fingers. “I have no interest in your cousins, Amanda.”

“You…you don’t?” Her eyes were wide with confusion. “But I thought–”

“Yes, you did, but you were mistaken.” His fingers traced the delicate structure of her jawline, leaving a deep blush in their wake. “You see, the thing of it is, there is only one woman I care for, except I never dared hope she might care for me as well – until now. Do you care for me, Amanda?”

He saw the longing in her eyes as realization dawned, and knew she’d respond in the affirmative before she nodded her answer. As soon as she did, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank God, for I don’t think I could have borne it if you didn’t.” And then he did what he’d wanted to do for so long. He lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her, chasing away whatever remaining doubts she might have about him wanting someone else.

Her lips parted and he was there, coaxing her and tasting her until they both gasped for breath. It was beautiful – magical – everything he’d dreamed of for as long as he could remember.

“I will speak to your father tomorrow,” he promised while pressing his cheek to hers moments later.

“This is indeed the best Christmas ever,” she said and promptly returned her mouth to his for another smoldering kiss.

“I couldn’t agree more.” Leaning back, he tucked a stray lock behind her ear.

She suddenly frowned. “I hope I won’t have forgotten about all of this in the morning. After all, I did have my fair share of brandy.”

Peter grinned. “That you did.” He placed a gentle kiss upon her forehead. “Fear not though – I shall leave you a note to remind you of all that has happened.”

Amanda woke the following morning, groaning in response to the pounding headache that threatened to split her skull in two. She rolled onto her side and opened her eyes to find a crisp piece of paper perched on her bedside table. Picking it up, she frowned, read it, and finally leapt from her bed in a state of total and utter bliss. She hadn’t forgotten, but Peter’s words made her heart sing with joy:

In case you fail to recall last night’s events, allow me to tell you that I love you, Amanda, that I have always loved you, and that I will never cease loving you. I hope you will do me the very great honor of marrying me, though it goes without saying that a formal proposal is in order. After all, you deserve the very best.

With the deepest affection and admiration,

Peter.

P.S. I have a Christmas present waiting for you downstairs.