Excerpt: Kissing by the Mistletoe

Kent, England
December 1813

Maddie Hayward perched on the edge of her chair in Mrs. Spencer’s drawing room, back straight, dark hair neatly pinned up, politely smiling as she sipped from a tea cup painted with delicate pink and yellow flowers.

“I understand the Mathisons will be visiting your family for a few weeks,” Mrs. Spencer announced.

The other ladies in the room tittered and Maddie fought to keep her smile from slipping. “That’s right.”

“Mrs. Mathison and…both her sons?” someone else asked, not quite able to sound nonchalant.

Maddie suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Kit Mathison, the oldest son, had been Maddie’s best friend for years—since before his father died and his mother had taken her children to Edinburgh, where her brother lived. Because Kit was handsome, unattached, and possessed a comfortable income, Maddie was supposed to be in love with him.

She did love him, but as the brother she never had, not as a potential husband. Yet whenever she corrected people’s assumptions, her words were dismissed. Apparently no one could conceive of a gentleman and a lady maintaining a close friendship without designs on each other.

“Yes,” Maddie responded, hoping no one else heard the slight edge in her voice. “Kit and Thomas will both be accompanying their mother.”

“You’re so lucky,” a younger woman sighed. “How wonderful would it be to dance with Kit Mathison.”

Maddie smiled at that with genuine goodwill. Dancing with the local women was one of the things Kit had mentioned in his last letter. It was one of the things he was most looking forward to. “Perhaps you’ll have the chance at the assembly this week. I know for a fact that he’s eager to see everyone.”

Mrs. Spencer waved her hand reprovingly, but let out a little chuckle. “Miss Hayward, you shouldn’t tease. We are all aware to whom Mr. Mathison will be directing his attention.”

And there was the other side of the coin—Kit was also reputed to be in love with Maddie.

For his part, Kit was highly amused by the whole situation. The consequences were less severe for him, though. Ladies still swooned over him, and not one would decline his addresses. Maddie, being female, was at a disadvantage; she was supposed to try to attract a gentleman and wait for him to initiate a courtship. But no true gentleman would encroach on what he saw as another man’s dominion.

Which left Maddie in a precarious position. She had few practical skills, no wealthy family, and little money of her own. If she failed to marry, her only option was to remain in her parents’ home and find some way to contribute to the household, lest she become a burden to them.

She smiled as best she could at Mrs. Spencer, feeling her resistance fade away. There wasn’t any use in arguing when no one listened to the argument. “But he can’t be by my side all the time.”

With Maddie’s seeming acceptance of the situation, the ladies of the drawing room beamed at her. Then they changed the subject, and no one spoke to Maddie directly for the rest of the visit.

“How does Mrs. Spencer?” Maddie’s mother asked when she returned home. “Did she carry on about her new teacups the way I thought she would?”

“She looked well,” Maddie answered, removing her bonnet and smoothing down her hair. “She was very keen on the new teacups, yes, but they weren’t the focus of our conversation.”

Her mother grinned. “I’m sure I know what was, though. How many ladies asked after Kit?”

This time Maddie let her eyes roll. Not that she didn’t expect it from her mother, but she’d been hoping they might get through one day without an allusion to her supposed relationship with Kit.

Apparently it wasn’t this day. “They all did, at one point or another.”

“You are a lucky girl,” her mother said, echoing the sentiments of the drawing room ladies. “To think, in just a few weeks’ time you could be Mrs. Christopher Mathison.”

“What?”

“Surly he’ll make you a pretty proposal at Christmas, with both families here to celebrate.”

Maddie’s mother was practically glowing at the thought of her daughter marrying the head of the Mathison family. Misplace though it was, Maddie didn’t have the heart to shatter the illusion. Everyone would settle down again when Christmas came and went with no proposal of marriage from Kit. And if she truly was lucky, he would find the right woman and marry her. Quickly.

She kissed her mother’s cheek and headed to her bedchamber, putting her bonnet in it’s usual place in her battered wardrobe. What if Kit didn’t marry quickly? How long could she linger with the wallflowers and chaperones at every event, unseen by gentlemen who might otherwise have taken an interest in her?

What if he didn’t marry at all?

The thought was like a punch to the stomach. All Maddie had ever wanted was to have a home and children of her own, to share her life with a man she adored. If Kit remained unattached, would everyone continue to think of her as his? Would she slip into spinsterhood while the eligible bachelors of Kent looked elsewhere?

Maddie dropped onto her bed, bracing her hands against the pomegranate red counterpane her grandmother had brought with her from Spain when she’d married Maddie’s grandfather. What would she have done in this situation?

Maddie laid back and grinned. Gran would have flouted convention and begun asking gentlemen to dance and drive and walk out with her. Maddie wasn’t quite so bold, but perhaps there was something she could do to take control of her life—this aspect of it, at least. Perhaps Kit would have some ideas, or maybe his brother, Thomas, could help.

She pictured Thomas as she’d last seen him, tall and lanky, his reddish hair curling every which way when he didn’t try to tame it with pomade. That had been the last time he’d visited the Haywards, right before he went off to university three years ago. He’d always been kind to her, quick to offer a helping hand when she’d needed one.

Of course, she’d only ever needed his assistance exiting a carriage or his company walking into the village. But Thomas was clever. If he and Kit and Maddie put their heads together, she was certain they’d come up with some way to uncouple her from Kit’s non-existent romantic attachment.

~*~

     Thomas Mathison sat on the rear-facing seat in his brother’s traveling coach, his eyes drifting out the window to watch the scenery roll past as he wiped his palms on his trousers. He’d been looking forward to this visit since Mrs. Hayward proposed the idea two months ago, but the closer they drew to the Haywards’ home, the more frenzied the butterflies in his stomach became. He had corresponded some with Maddie in the years since they’d last seen each other, so it wasn’t as if they’d be strangers after so much time apart. But what if things had changed for her that she hadn’t mentioned in her letters? Was she still interested in gardening? Still fleet of foot when skating on the little pond near the village?

An image of ice skating with Maddie formed in his mind, as clear as if it had happened only moments ago: Maddie skating backward as she held his hands, bundled up against the cold, as Thomas drew her closer with promises to keep her warm. She wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her face for his kiss, and he obliged with a grin.

One of the carriage wheels rolled over a rock and Thomas’s head bumped against the window, dissolving the image. Maddie doubtlessly thought of him as Kit’s little brother and nothing else. Perhaps she was even skating with—and being warmed by—someone else, even as the geographical gap between them was closing. The thought felt like a fist to his face.

Not that he had any claim on her. He’d thought it prudent to wait until he’d found work and saved up enough money to support a wife before he spoke to Maddie of love and marriage. He smoothed his hands over his thighs, attempting to wipe away the sweat that was forming again on his palms. Maybe it would be better if Maddie found someone else, someone who wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not he could afford a home and clothing and food for more than just himself. She deserved to be with a man who could take care of her, who could give her not only the things she needed but everything she wanted.

“Thomas, dear, are you all right?”

He turned to his mother, sitting opposite him, and blinked. “Yes, I’m quite well.”

“Are you certain? It sounded as though you’d hit your head rather hard.”

He heard a quiet chuckle from Kit’s side of the carriage. “Don’t worry mother. Thomas’s head is hard enough to withstand a little bump.”

Thomas smirked at his brother. “Not as hard as yours, of course. Didn’t you once get hit by a mallet and keep right on walking?” Thomas knew very well about the mallet—he’d been holding it when it had bashed Kit in the temple. Accidentally, of course.

Kit grinned and rapped his knuckles against his skull. “Sturdy as a block of marble.”

“I do hope the two of you won’t be acting like adolescents in the presence of the Haywards,” their mother sighed. “Maddie Hayward will not look fondly on a man who cannot put his boyhood behind him.”

Kit laughed. “Maddie is the one who gave Thomas the mallet, mother.”

Their mother pressed her lips together for a moment before saying, “Yes, but that was years ago. I’m sure she’s become a well-behaved young lady now, and if you want to pay your addresses to her, you ought to consider your own behavior.”

It was a common refrain among the Mathisons, that Kit and Maddie would some day settle down together. No one but Kit knew of the hope Thomas harbored regarding Maddie, and that was the way he preferred it. But it still stung to have that hope so easily dashed by his own mother.

“I will promise to behave myself,” Kit said, patting his mother’s hand as it lay on the seat between them. “But I will not promise to court Maddie, no matter how many times you imply that I want to.”

“There’s no harm in wanting to spend time with her again before you ask for her hand,” their mother smiled. “But you can’t have been so close to her all these years without meaning to marry her.”

“I can, Mother. And I have.”

“What about me?” Thomas blurted out. “I’ve been close to her, too. Might it be possible that I want to marry her?”

He could feel his cheeks warming, and hoped he wasn’t actually blushing. His mother was studying his face as if he might be, but then she shook her head.

“Your relationship with her isn’t like Kit’s. I know that you’re fond of her, but she has always spent more time with your brother. She confides in him.”

Thomas knew that was true, but felt himself frowning nonetheless. “You don’t think Maddie could ever be interested in me?”

His mother reached across the carriage and took his hand for a moment. “I know that there are several ladies in Edinburgh who have already set their caps for you, my sweet boy—your uncle has told me as much. You’ve been the toast of his social circle since you arrived, he said, and you’ll have scores of women to choose from when you’re ready to take a wife.”

Thomas could see the pride in her eyes, in the set of her mouth, and it warmed him.

“But,” she went on, “Maddie was meant for Kit.”

Kit crossed his arms over his chest with a frown, but didn’t protest. Thomas wasn’t surprised—the family joke about hard-headedness didn’t just apply to the brothers. Their mother could be absolutely single-minded when it came to certain subjects, and arguing with her was often a fruitless occupation.

He went back to his window, noting the addition of a few darker clouds among the puffy white ones. He came back to the idea that it might be better if Maddie did have a beau. That would leave Kit free of their mother’s expectations and allow Thomas to put aside a dream that would likely never come true. He’d only have to deal with the pain of seeing her with someone else for a few weeks, then he could get on with the business of living without her. One day, he might even find contentment with one of the ladies his mother mentioned.

Yes, that would be the easiest way out of this dilemma. He would simply ignore the possibility of impending heartbreak.


Copyright © 2018 by Cora Lee

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