(A bite-sized story about an earl, a governess, and a cat named Willoughby.)
Copyright © 2013 Anna Bennett. All rights reserved.
Alec Landry, the Earl of Torrington, had planned on spending Christmas Eve sipping brandy in front of a crackling Yule log.
Instead, he was trudging through half a foot of snow in the wooded area of his country estate, freezing his ass off, and looking for a flea-ridden cat.
A white cat. In the snow.
“Willoughby!” he called.
“He’ll never show himself if you shout like that.” Charlotte Winter shot him a quintessential governess look that was only somewhat compromised by her rosy cheeks and full lips. “He needs to feel safe.”
“I’d like to be able to feel my toes. ”Alec scanned the frosted landscape and the heavy grey clouds in the darkening sky and sobered. “If we don’t find him soon, we’ll have to return to the house.”
Charlotte’s brow knitted and her emerald eyes flashed. “We must find him. Abigail will be crushed if we don’t.”
“Damn.” Alec hated the thought of disappointing either his golden-haired daughter or her beguiling governess. He even felt a little sorry for old Willoughby, who’d gone on a walk with Charlotte and Abigail earlier, gotten spooked by a fox, and run up a tree. They’d tried to coax him down, but Willoughby was too petrified to budge. Charlotte had wisely returned home with Abigail and unwisely promised that she’d go back for Willoughby. Though adamant she could manage the rescue mission on her own, Alec had insisted on accompanying her.
Even if there hadn’t been a godforsaken snowstorm raging outside, he’d have leapt at the chance to spend an hour or two in her company.
“I think this is the spot, but the trees look different covered in snow.” Charlotte gazed at the branches above, exposing the graceful column of her neck.
For a moment, Alec let himself imagine pressing his lips to the smooth skin there. He fought the temptation to slide his hands beneath her fur lined cloak and run them over the tantalizing curves of her body.
Apparently unaware of his wicked thoughts, she sang out, “Here, Willoughby. Here, kitty.”
They both tilted back their heads, looking into the lattice of boughs above them, but saw no movement. No sign of a crotchety cat.
“You should call out for him—nicely,” she added quickly. “He’s always been drawn to you.”
Alec snorted. “He’s always been drawn to my desk.” One would think a cat could find a more comfortable perch than a stack of papers. His favorite pastime? Nudging Alec’s ink pot toward the edge of his mahogany desk.
“Willoughby!” he barked.
“Softer,” Charlotte urged. She stood so close that he could feel warmth radiating from her, could smell the citrusy scent of her hair. A few dark tendrils had escaped the confines of her hat and flurries clung to them, giving her the look of a snow fairy. Sweet Jesus.
“Here, Willoughby, old boy,” he said—feeling like quite the idiot.
“Better,” she whispered, her voice as seductive as a caress. “Wait. I think I see him!”
Alec looked up, and a large chunk of ice smacked him in the face. Damn Willoughby and his twitchy tail. Still, the sight of the cat, nestled in the crook of the trunk and a branch like some fat snowbird, filled him with relief. Now to get him down. Alec kicked at the snow around the base of the trunk, picked up a long stick, and raised it in the air.
Charlotte gasped. “What are you doing?”
“I’m just going to poke him a little.”
“No! He’ll fall.”
Well, yes. That was the point. “I’m going to catch him.”
“You could miss.” She undid the tie at the neck of her cloak and threw it on the ground.
It was Alec’s turn to gasp. “What are you doing?”
“Climbing the tree,” she said—as though it should be obvious.
“Charlotte, he’s ten feet high.”
“Which is why we can’t just knock him off the branch and hope to catch him.” She walked up to the trunk and grasped the lowest branch. “I’m coming, Willoughby.”
For the love of— “Wait. I’ll get him.”
She tossed him a saucy look over her shoulder. “What? You don’t think I can climb a tree?”
“I don’t doubt that you can, and it’s something I’d very much like to see. However, it might be easier for me.”
She planted her hands on her shapely hips. “And why might that be?”
“Because I’m not wearing a dress.”
She stared at the hem of her gown which was frozen stiff and embellished with little clumps of snow. “Very well,” she said lifting her chin. “You climb the tree, and I’ll stand here, ready to catch Willoughby if he falls.” She plucked her cloak off the ground and draped it between her arms, fashioning a net of sorts.
“What if I fall?” Alec grinned.
“Don’t ask me to choose between you and Willoughby.”
“I’m fairly certain I know who’d win.” Alec swung himself up by a branch and dug the heels of his boots into the trunk.
From his perch, the cat let out a loud meeooow.
“I’m coming,” Alec muttered. He hoisted himself up the tree, inch by icy inch, until he was eye-to-eye with Willoughby, who trembled and clung to his branch like he was hanging on for life, which he probably was.
“Come here, you big fur ball.” Alec’s forearms ached from the strain of holding onto the tree, but he managed to shift his weight and reach out toward Willoughby—
Mwraaar! The cat shrieked like a phantom as it leapt over Alec’s extended hand, landed on the back of his head, and dug his razor-like claws into Alec’s neck.
He tried to pry the paws off him, lost his precarious footing, and slid down the length of the trunk, landing hard on his ass and sprawling backward. “Damn.”
Willoughby, who’d abandoned ship just before Alec ran aground, meowed.
Charlotte ran to Alec and dropped to her knees. “Are you all right?” She leaned over him, her forehead creased in concern, and cradled his face between her palms. Her breath made puffy little clouds in the air between them. Alec would have been content to lay there in the snow, gazing into her luminous eyes all night.
“I’ll live. How’s Willoughby?”
“You were magnificent,” she said breathlessly.
“Was I?” he asked, more than a little pleased that she seemed to have forgotten about the cat.
“Mmm. You have a scratch here.” She traced a line on the side of his jaw with her gloved fingertip, and his breath caught in his throat.
This was a pre-Christmas gift. And he could not waste it.
“Charlotte,” he began, “I know you’re planning to leave us tomorrow.”
“Yes,” she said softly. “I’m going to my aunt’s, until Twelfth Night. I’d have left this afternoon, if not for Willoughby.”
“Then I owe that lazy cat a debt of gratitude.”
He propped himself up on an elbow and caressed the curve of her cheek. Her eyes grew wide, but she didn’t draw back. “I’ve been thinking that Abigail would love to have you here, with us, for Christmas…and I would too.”
Alec held his breath, waiting for her response.
At last, a smile lit her face. “I suppose Aunt Lucinda could manage without me.”
Happiness—like he hadn’t felt in five Christmases—flooded his chest. He sat upright and gently pulled her forward, till their foreheads touched. “You don’t suppose this is a mistletoe tree we’re sitting under, do you?” he asked.
“There’s no such thing…but we could pretend, if you like.”
Desire thrumming through his veins, he pressed his lips to hers. She melted into him, eagerly returning his passion, kiss for kiss, touch for touch. She tasted like peppermint tea and cinnamon, and her tongue tangled with his so sweetly he was sorely tempted to lay her down in the snow and pleasure her until she—
Good God. Reluctantly, he released her. Unless he was mistaken, Willoughby was clawing his way up the back of his greatcoat.
Charlotte laughed. “I don’t think he likes standing in the snow. Perhaps we should take him home.”
“Home sounds like an excellent idea.” He tucked a purring Willoughby into the crook of his arm and helped Charlotte to her feet. “Merry Christmas, Charlotte.”
She leaned her head into his shoulder and slipped her hand into his. “Let me know if you see any more mistletoe trees.”
Alec chuckled. “The woods are full of them.”
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Charlotte set her pen on the desk and pressed her fingertips to her forehead. How many cautionary tales had she heard about the perils of governesses dallying with their employers?
Dozens. And yet she’d made the same grave, terribly cliché mistake.
No matter that the earl was a widowed, loving father—and sinfully handsome.
He paid her salary, and she had no business kissing him this afternoon. Now, because of her monumental lapse in judgment, he’d never be able to respect her as a governess. She had no choice but to say goodbye to little Abigail, Torrington Manor…and him.
She swiped at her eyes, picked up her pen, and reread the letter she’d begun.
It is with deep regret that I hereby tender my resignation.
I should never have
Pausing, she touched the quill feather to her lips. Should never have what, precisely? Run my fingers through your hair? Tasted your lips? Fallen in love with—
“Forgive me for intruding.”
Charlotte started, nearly toppling her pot of ink as the earl strode into the drawing room, looking anything but apologetic. His dark hair gleamed in the firelight, his tailored, dark blue jacket showed his broad shoulders to advantage, and his snug buckskin trousers conformed to…
Heaven help her.
He walked closer, stopping when the toes of his polished boots were just inches from the hem of her gown.
Unable to help herself, she let her gaze drift up, over his muscled legs, flat abdomen, and solid chest. Above his snowy white cravat, blue eyes gleamed. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
She swallowed. “Indeed.”
“You’re working?” He leaned forward as though he’d peer over her shoulder, and she quickly flipped over the letter.
She should tell him that she was leaving, but he’d no doubt be disappointed. Perhaps even devastated. Not for his own sake, of course. But he’d worry about finding a new governess—one who’d care for Abigail as she did—and she had no wish to spoil his Christmas. The news of her impending departure could wait another day or two.
“I was just preparing some lessons.”
Smiling, he leaned a hip on the corner of the desk and crossed his arms. “You work too hard.”
“That is why I’m here, is it not?” After today’s ill-advised kiss in the snow, it seemed both of them could use the reminder.
“I gave the entire staff the night off. That includes you. Surely, the lessons can wait.”
“Actually, they cannot. Abigail, as you know, is extremely bright. She must be constantly challenged if she is to reach her full potential.”
“I hardly think her education will suffer unduly if you take one evening off.”
“Learning does not take a holiday, my lord.” Inside, she cringed at her superior governess tone, but the earl chuckled.
“You should call me Alec. And you are correct—about learning that is. We must all seek to improve ourselves and further our education, even as adults.”
“Exactly.” Gratified, she picked up her pen, a signal she intended to return her attention to her work.
He plucked the quill out of her hand and slid the feather along her cheek. “I’m glad we agree, because tonight I have a lesson for you.”
Delicious shivers stole over her skin. “For me?”
“Perhaps a bit different from your usual studies.” The twinkle in his eyes set her heartbeat racing.
“There’s to be no math or Latin, then?” she choked out.
“Absolutely not. This evening’s lesson shall be infinitely more exciting. I’m going to teach you how to dance.” He put down the pen and held out a hand.
Her traitorous fingers slipped into his open palm, and he smoothly pulled her to her feet. Hoping to regain some measure of control, she raised her chin. “I already know how to dance.”
His lips curled into a knowing smile as he guided her toward an open space in front of the fireplace, where a Yule log crackled. “I’m not talking about country reel.”
Blast it all. “I know the steps of the waltz, too. My sister and I used to practice together.”
“I assure you that this experience will be quite different.” He placed his hands on her shoulders, gently turning her so that they stood toe-to-toe. “Excellent, I believe we are ready to begin.”
Heady with anticipation, she arched a brow at him. “I feel compelled to point out that you have not adequately prepared for the lesson. A good teacher ensures that conditions are optimal for learning.”
“Snow’s falling outside. It’s warm and cozy in here. You look lovely—as always. I’d say the conditions are perfect.”
“But there’s no music.”
A dangerous grin lit his face. “We don’t need music. Just follow my lead.”
He settled his hands on either side of her waist; she let her hands glide over his rock-hard biceps on the way to his shoulders.
Pressing his forehead to hers, he said, “I knew you’d be a quick study.” Slowly, he swayed, moving them in time to the snow swirling outside the large windows. When he steered her away from a small table, their bodies bumped lightly together, her breasts grazing the hard wall of his torso. She looked into his eyes, and what she saw in their depths made her breath catch in her throat.
In the intoxicating warmth of his embrace, she forgot about the cautionary tales, her unfinished resignation letter, and all her earlier self-loathing. Perhaps it was the magic of the season, but she was fairly certain she was about to let the earl—Alec—kiss her. Or maybe she’d kiss him.
For the second time that day.
He skimmed his hands up her sides, pulling her closer. “What do you think of the lesson so far?”
“That’s good.” He stopped moving, cupped her face in his hands, and smoothed his thumbs over her cheeks. He lowered his head but hesitated when his lips were just a breath away from hers, as though seeking permission.
“This is complicated,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he admitted. “And worth it. You are worth it. Just promise me that…you won’t leave.”
“I can’t promise,” she said. “But I’m not ready for the lesson to end.”
With a growl, he hauled her against him and covered her mouth with his in a kiss that proved to be very, very enlightening.