November 19, 1817
Residence of the Duke of Huntingdon
“Must you always be badgering me on this matter, Wife? Alicia is barely one-and-twenty. She and Stanton will settle down one of these days. I daresay they are on the brink of setting a date even as we speak.”
The duke’s young wife crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“So you’ve told me for the last two years. Not only have they not set a date, Lucas, but they rarely even see each other! Alicia has danced more with the Prince Regent than with her own betrothed this past Season!”
The Duke of Huntingdon closed his book and laid his spectacles on top of it. “Has that old lecher been philandering with my girl? I’ll see him in hell first!”
Cheeks flushed, the young duchess clenched her fists. “No, of course not! That’s not the point, and you know it well. What I’ve been trying to tell you is that Alicia and Milton Gardiner show no signs of partiality for each other’s company, and people are beginning to question whether the marriage will ever be accomplished at all!”
Her eyes narrowed. “The Prince danced as many times with me this Season, but you’ve never said a word against him. I believe you care for her more than your own wife!”
She pulled out a handkerchief and swiped it over her eyes.
The duke rolled his eyes. “Good God, Elise, must you always make a fuss about everything? You know very well that as an unmarried young woman, Alicia’s reputation must be spotless, or no one, not even Stanton, will marry her. She and Stanton have always been the best of friends, Neither has ever spoken a word against their childhood betrothal, and you know Alicia well enough to know that she would certainly do so if she wished to.” He snorted.
“As far as Stanton, he can hardly be expected to dance with the gel when he’s spent most of the Season in Norfolk taking over his father’s duties on the estate. It may be unfashionable for a young man to take his responsibilities seriously, but I say it speaks well of his character.”
Lady Huntingdon glared at him. “And when Blackburn dies, the wedding will be postponed a year at least. Lucas, I must insist that you speak to your daughter immediately and impress upon her the urgency of securing this marriage as soon as may be!”
At the sound of her stepmother’s footsteps moving toward the door, Alicia fled down the hall into the nearest room where she posed in front of the hearth and pretended to be studying a portrait of her late mother. Too late, she thought better of the idea. Elise hated that portrait of her predecessor almost as much as she hated Alicia herself.
The staccato clicks of her stepmother’s heels on the wooden floor paused when they passed the drawing room where Alicia had taken refuge.
“What are you doing here?” Elise demanded, her voice dripping with suspicion.
Alicia shrugged and smiled innocently. “Why, looking at my mother’s portrait, of course.”
The duchess’s brow furrowed. “Were you eavesdropping on my conversation with your father?”
Alicia’s mouth assumed a slack expression. “Were you having a conversation with my father? About me?”
Her stepmother’s nostrils flared. “You were listening! I knew it!” she snapped. “Did you learn anything interesting?”
“I-I, well…,” Alicia stammered.
“A thousand pardons, Your Grace, but you’re needed in the nursery. Master Gervase is poorly today, and Nurse wishes to call in a physician.”
One of the upstairs maids appeared in the doorway, looking worried.
“Gervase, my darling child…ill? Oh my, I knew that Nurse should not have taken him out of doors yesterday! Oh, I must go to him immediately!”
She gave Alicia a menacing stare, lifted her skirts, and rushed toward the stairway.
The maid winked at Alicia. “More ’n likely he’s just teething.” Then she took off after her mistress.
Alicia sighed heavily and gazed up at her mother’s beautiful face. It was almost like looking in a mirror, as she had inherited Frances Howland’s dark wavy hair, tawny eyes, and high cheekbones. Her prominent nose and light brown skin that no amount of lemon juice scrubs would lighten had come from her father, who had some French ancestry in his blood.
“Oh Mama! Why did you have to go sailing that day, of all days?”
She pressed her face down against the cool marble surface of the mantel. Three years ago she’d received the devastating news that her mother and Lady Blackburn had drowned when the skiff they’d been sailing had run into a sudden storm and capsized in the Wash a mile off the Norfolk coast. Her life had never been the same since. Particularly not when, after a year of mourning, her father had married a young girl only a few years older than she, who’d had the nerve to bear him the son he’d always wanted fifteen months later.
Her new stepmother, the daughter of a baronet whose mother claimed to be a displaced French countess, had been scheming to get rid of Alicia from the first day she’d moved in. Alicia was a constant reminder of her mother, a notorious London beauty. Elise’s skin was the pale porcelain favored by society, but in combination with her gray eyes, small round head and pale blonde hair, she tended to fade into the woodwork. With dark hair in fashion these days, it galled her to appear in public with the stepdaughter who outshone her.
Nor did it help when all the servants showed a pronounced preference for Alicia.
“That’s not my fault,” she said lifting her head to her mother’s face as if to defend her behavior. “I never encouraged them to do that.”
But you never did anything to prevent it, did you, Daughter? You weren’t raised to prevaricate, you know. This type of behavior is beneath you.
A lump formed in Alicia’s throat. It was true. Her mother, at least, had worked very hard to keep her grounded in good Christian values and a healthy respect for others. Alicia knew her mother would have been sorely distressed to see the way she provoked her stepmother, sometimes without half-trying.
Your behavior causes your father much grief, you know. Does he not deserve a peaceful home?
Alicia paled as she recalled the conversation she’d just overheard in her father’s study. Unkind as it was to deliberately provoke her stepmother, it also had the effect of disturbing her father’s domestic life. Which she’d not hesitated to do at first when she’d been furious with her father’s decision to remarry, but now…it seemed rather childish and cruel.
He’s been a good father to you, Alicia. He was a good husband to me as well. Does he not deserve your loyalty?
“Alicia, my dear.”
Lucas Howland, the Duke of Huntingdon, strolled through the doorway toward her. At forty-nine, he was still a fine figure of a man, although his dark hair was now sprinkled with gray and his stomach was beginning to make itself known beneath his olive-green waistcoat.
He sighed as he cupped her shoulders and drew her against his chest as they both gazed up at the portrait of his first wife.
“Aye, she was a marvelous woman. I still miss her too, you know. Many times I wish I had forbidden her to take the boat out that day.”
Tears gathered in Alicia’s eyes. “But she would never have heeded you, Papa. It wasn’t your fault.”
He turned her around and hugged her to his chest. “No, she was a willful one, my Frances. So spirited and full of life…I’m sure it never occurred to her that it could all be lost so quickly and tragically.”
They stood there a moment and reflected on what the loss of the former duchess had brought to their lives. For the duke—a young second wife and the heir he’d always wanted. For Alicia—a new baby brother with whom she’d felt an instant connection, but who came with the inconvenience of an antagonistic stepmother.
“She was my best friend,” Alicia whispered. “I could tell her anything and she would never laugh at me or remonstrate with me. She always told me to forget the past and live each day to the fullest.”
She lifted her wounded face to her father’s. “But how can I forget her? She was my life and now she’s gone! I feel…lost without her, Papa.”
Her father sighed and kissed her forehead before drawing her head to his shoulder. “I know it well, my dear. I’ve seen you drift aimlessly through two Seasons, and I know well things would have been much different had it been your mother sponsoring you and not your aunt.”
“Aunt Tabitha has been very kind, Papa, but you are correct—it’s not the same.”
Her father’s sister had not got on well with her sister-in-law and it seemed Alicia had inherited too many of her mother’s characteristics to make for an amicable connection between aunt and niece.
The duke turned and, taking her arm, led her to a settee.
“Come and sit with me, Daughter. It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken privately, and I think a chat is quite overdue. Shall I order tea?”
Tea? Alicia forced herself to relax her hands, which had tightened into fists at her father’s request. She knew where this conversation was going.
“No tea, Papa. It will be time for nuncheon soon. I suppose you want to know about how things stand between Milton and me.”
Her father patted her hand. “I don’t wish to push you out of the nest, Alicia, but people are beginning to wonder if you and Stanton mean to marry after all. You’ve had two Seasons and I’ve heard no reports of your forming any other attachments in that time.”
Because everyone knows I’ve been betrothed to Milton forever.
“I had beaux,” she said defensively. “I was never a wallflower, you know. I had any number of escorts to Vauxhall and drives through the park.”
The duke heaved a sigh. “Of course, you did. I never meant to imply otherwise. But of all of them, did none appeal to you as a better choice for husband than young Stanton?”
“No, nothing like that.” Well, there was Lord Hadley, the handsome young viscount who made all the young ladies’ hearts flutter, but he’d gone off on his Grand Tour last year and showed no sign of returning any time soon.
“As far as I know, Papa, Milton and I still plan to be married. I haven’t heard from him lately, since he’s been so busy at Blackburn, but I’m sure we’ll discuss it after our return to Huntingdon.”
Her father grimaced. “I don’t mean to pressure you, my dear, but with Blackburn’s illness, you might want to set an early date. I’m sure it would give him great pleasure to see his son wed before… well, there’s no way to avoid the fact that his days are numbered.”
“And once he’s gone, there will be a year of mourning. I do realize that, Papa. I’m sure Elise will be no end of piqued to have me on your hands for another year.”
Her father flinched. “It’s not that, Alicia. It’s just that… it’s obvious you’re not happy with us, and we think it’s time you settled down and started your own family. With Stanton, if he’s your choice. No one wishes to force you out, least of all your stepmother.”
Alicia snorted. Did her father really think she would believe that? She’d have known it to be an untruth even if she had not overheard their recent conversation.
“Of course not. I’m sure Elise is eager to become a grandmother.”
Her father tried to hide his grin, and Alicia turned and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll discuss it with Milton, Papa. He has a lot on his mind these days. When his father dies, he’ll be alone in the world. At least I still have a father left.”
Her father let out a huge breath. “Thank you, my dear.”
He stood and started to leave, then turned and looked at her with a twinkle in his eye.
“I can’t speak for Elise, of course, but I for one am looking forward to becoming a grandfather with great anticipation. And I’m sure Gervase will be in alt to have a little niece or nephew to play with.”
Alicia blushed. “Really, Papa!”
Baby Gervase an uncle? An amusing image, but it all seemed so premature. She’d been betrothed to Milton for so long, but the actual marriage had seemed far off. In all that time, she’d never actually thought much about being Milton’s wife and having his children. Now that the time seemed imminent, she felt a growing feeling of panic. Bridal nerves, of course. All brides had them. It would all turn out well in the end, she assured herself.
All I Want For Christmas is You is part of the Bluestocking Belles’ latest Christmas collection, Christmastide Kisses.
About Susana Ellis
Susana Ellis is a retired teacher, part-time caregiver, sewist, cook, and fashion print collector. Lifelong reading and a fascination with history led her to writing historical romances. She is one of the original Bluestocking Belles and a member of Regency Fiction Writers and the Maumee Valley Romance Authors Inc.
You can contact Susana Ellis at these social media links: