Twenty-five years Later, Christmas Eve
With a flourish, Ernest dipped Beatrice on the floor of his ballroom and lifted her with ease though he was eight-and-fifty years. Beatrice came up with a smile, “You still leave me breathless.”
“Good,” Ernest smiled as he kissed his wife’s cheek. “Have I told you how beautiful you are in your costume, My Dear?”
“You might have said it once or twice,” Beatrice said as she smoothed the gold cloth of her Hera, Queen of Olympus, costume. “But I won’t complain if I hear it once more.”
It was Christmas Eve, and Ernest’s home was filled with people, food, and happiness. There was Anna and her husband, brother Luther, twenty-year-old Silas, and their daughter Helen who had just turned twelve. His twenty-two-year-old son, Evan, and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Ophelia, were there as well, both in costumes.
His son had just finished Oxford and was in London, steadily making his name as a prominent solicitor and by the rumors, a notorious flirt. Ernest had not had any proof that his son was seducing women, but he had warned Evan that dire consequences would come if he fathered a child out of wedlock.
Ophelia, his daughter, was growing into a beautiful woman and more than once, he had heard Evan vow to start walking with a shotgun when she began her Season. Privately, Ernest had given him permission.
Thankfully, that was for another year as Ophelia had chosen to go to finishing school, and then she would see about suitors.
“Such a showoff, Father,” Evan teased from behind his devil’s mask. “Can you not outdo the younger generation, for once?”
“No,” Ernest said plainly. “Mayhap, you should take note of how to treat a lady.”
“I do all right in that category,” Evan gave him a cocky grin, which had Ernest glaring at his back as he walked away to his partner for the evening.
Taking Beatrice’s arm, he led her to the punch table, where they could see Ethan and his lady friend, “That boy is playing with fire if he keeps his roaming ways. It’s one lady this month and another the next.”
“He’s just finding the right lady for him,” Beatrice said while taking her punch. “You’ve set very high standards for him in finding a wife, My Love.”
Setting his glass down, Ernest said, “I have, haven’t I?”
“You have,” Beatrice said, “and you’ve set the same for Ophelia. She knows what sort of gentleman she should accept in her life.”
Looking to his daughter, seated in a dress of white silk embroidered with roses, the center sewn in with beads of pure gold that matched her flaxen hair, Ernest nodded, then smiled at the utterly bored look on his daughter’s face. She was fanning herself with a silken bejeweled fan that matched her dress.
“See that look on her face, she would rather be in my study now with a book than dancing with us,” Ernest remarked.
“Another thing that you instilled in her,” Beatrice smiled. “It’s a good thing, too, as I don’t fancy being a grandmother anytime soon.”
“I just want our son to find a proper lady so I can hand the earldom to him, and we can start traveling,” Ernest grumbled. “I can’t hand it over to Luther because he’s so wrapped up in managing his mercantile business.”
Resting a hand on his chest, Beatrice smiled, “Don’t fret about it, Love. He’ll come around quick enough. And I want to see our daughter set with a good man as well.”
Ernest pulled Beatrice to his side as his gaze scanned the room with happiness. In the past twenty years, they had crossed countless milestones together, including Beatrice adjusting to the role of a countess, their children's births, the births of his nephews and nieces.
Then came the total renovation and expansion of the orphanage. The years had passed peacefully, especially since his despicable father had died like a dog in prison five years after he had entered it.
His eyes landed on Luther, who was off in a corner, speaking with a now-adult Harry. The happy-go-lucky boy from the orphanage had grown into a rather dapper and intelligent man, having come out at the top of his class in Cambridge last year.
Maria, the thin redhead, had gone on to be a governess and paid chaperone for a few families he knew, and wild-haired Rufus was now a talented barber and gunsmith.
Beatrice and Anna had not let go of their posts as overseers, and neither Ernest nor Luther had asked them to as that place was where they had lived half of their lives, and it was the root of his and Beatrice’s connection.
When Ernest looked back on his life, how sad and lonely he had been before Beatrice had come into it, he thanked God the day he had gone to see the harridan who had sent that letter. It had led him to his long-lost brother and now, complete happiness.
“What gift did we get for Silas again?” Beatrice asked. “I have so many I can’t even remember.”
“A limit on his allowance,” Ernest said dryly, with his eyes flickering to his nephew. “He goes through clothes and phaetons like the Pinkest of the Pinks.”
Beatrice side eyed him, “Be serious, Ernest.”
“We got him his first set of racing horses, Dear, courtesy of Daniel and his connections with the races,” Ernest said, “I just hope Luther won’t break my neck for putting his son in trouble.”
“Care to take a walk with me?” Beatrice asked.
Ernest tilted his head with interest, but he nodded, and taking his hand, she led him out from the ballroom and into the garden beyond. Curiously, Ernest followed her to a spot in the garden that brought up a slew of lovely memories for him.
It was the same spot where he had opened his soul to her and where the wicker basket had burned to ashes. The snow was only trickling down, and a few flakes were trapped in her hair and lashes.
The moon was up, full and bright, and Beatrice tucked herself under his arm. “This spot, when you kidnapped me from the orphanage—”
“I didn’t kidnap you,” Ernest countered, “I sent Stetson, God rest his soul, to get you, and you willingly came. That is not kidnapping, Dearest.”
“But it was also the night where I fell in love with you,” Beatrice turned in his arms and slid hers to his back, “And to this day, I’m so in love with you that my heart leaps when you look at me, and when you kiss me, I can hardly think straight. There are days when my love terrifies me.”
He kissed her, “Terrifies you, how?”
“When you pass on,” Beatrice said. “If you die before I—”
“That thought haunts me too,” Ernest breathed. “You are everything to me, Beatrice, you hold my heart, and if you die before me, you’ll take it with you,” he ended fervently.
He heard her breath hitch, “For so very long, I believed that I would live my life alone, that I would never find a man who could love me as I was. But then you walked into my life, and I found happiness. Pure happiness, Ernest.”
Taking her hand, Ernest led her to the pagoda a little way off to save them from the snowfall and tugged her to his lap — an action reminiscent of so many times before.
“For now, no one is dying, and nothing is ending,” he declared. “You’re mine to the end of time and beyond it. You’ve given me what I thought I would never have. You’ve shown me that redemption is available for the coldest souls, as I thought was the case of mine. Let us decide here and now that all we need is each other. I truly need you: your love fills me with joy, your smile is the reason I wake in the morning, and is the hope to see it again is why I go to sleep. You, My Dear, make my life worth living.”
“Where did you adopt the suave sense of seduction?” Beatrice asked coyly.
“I’ve picked up a few things along the way?” Ernest smiled.
Beatrice grasped his shoulders, “You have my undivided devotion, Ernest.”
He cupped her nape, smiling that even after so many years, his touch had her shivering, which turned into a deeper trembling when his fingers slid into the soft hairs on the back of her neck.
Beatrice’s expectant sudden inhale had him grinning more as he slanted his mouth over her and kissed her, long and hard and deep. It was an act of adoration and possession, and Beatrice knew it the way she yielded for him to consume her.
His mouth moved to nip at her ear, and then as her head canted to the side, wordlessly, a motion that told of their decades of synchronism, his mouth landed on her pulse point just under her ear.
Gripping his shoulders, Beatrice pressed her body into his as his kisses had her quaking in his arms. A moan rumbled his chest at the clean, brisk scent of her skin; vanilla oil and orange blossoms.
He began to harden in his trousers, as his nostrils flared with desire. Ernest’s grip tightened on her rounded hips, “Care to take this conversation to our bedchamber, My Love?”
“I… I’d love to, but w… we have guests, Darling,” Beatrice panted, “It’s bad form to disappear on our family and visitors.”
“Who says we can’t?” Ernest growled. “This is my house, and I go by my rules.”
Laughing, Beatrice pulled away from him. “I know, Dearest. How about we go back, finish the ball, and tonight, we’ll have our time?”
Huffing out a breath, Ernest nodded, “Fine. I need to speak with Daniel anyway.”
They returned to the ball, snagging flutes of champagne while entering the ballroom. Wrapping an arm around his wife, Ernest greeted a few peers. Andrew, Daniel’s second cousin, had arrived with his wife and twin sons. Samuel and Solomon. Both just out of Eton at eighteen, had identical russet hair and charming amber eyes.
Samuel was quiet, while Solomon was more outspoken, but what interested Ernest was how Ophelia blushed when Solomon kissed her hand. What did make him grin however was when Evan appeared and stepped between Solomon and his sister, his expression fierce and protective.
“Oh my,” Beatrice tittered, flicking out her fan, “and now we see another side of our son.”
“Maybe there is hope for him after all,” Ernest said.
Daniel and his wife arrived just before the toast at midnight and stood by Ernest, to apologize under his breath. “We nearly lost a wheel, Comerford. It was slow going after that.”
“I don’t mind, Daniel,” Ernest said, noting the new addition of spectacles on his friend’s nose and the thickening gray hairs at his temples. “At least you’re here and safe. Let’s talk about horses later on.”
Lifting his glass, Ernest called his guest to a toast, “Twenty-five years ago, this home was segmented, just like my life was. My brother was missing, my life was bland, and the only purpose I had in life was to find Luther. That was until the love of my life came in like a glimmer of light in the darkness. She showed me the difference between survival and living. And to this day, our love stays true. As this new year comes, I hope you will all find your light and your lives will glow. Merry Christmas, everyone, and please, enjoy your night.”
Tipping his flute to Beatrice’s, he drank, as did the rest.
“Please,” Beatrice said to her guests, when the chatter picked up again, “the dining room is ready.” Turning to Ernest, she asked, “Are you hungry, Darling?”
“Not for food,” Ernest said sensually.
Leaning in, Beatrice whispered. “We’ll have our time, I promise.”
Later on, in their bedroom, Ernest was nursing a glass of wine in his dressing gown when Beatrice’s hand rested on his shoulder. Turning, he reached out, and they met in a tender, heady, searing kiss.
He tasted coconut and sweetness on his wife's tongue, the remains of the éclair she had eaten after dinner. With one hand bracing her cheek, he slipped the second to the tie of her wrapper.
His fingers stroked the silk of her throat while with one tug of her belt, and her robe parted. He stepped back to slip the silk off her shoulders to reveal an undergarment that made his blood pound in his veins. Made of translucent white gossamer silk and topped with creamy lace, the slip of what masqueraded as a negligée plunged deeply over her bosom and was held by thin ribbons.
Sliding his finger under one thin strap that would snap if he did so much as tighten his fingers, Ernest said, “Little minx, you went to the modiste without me.”
“I thought you’d appreciate a new kind of Christmas present,” Beatrice said, reaching up to thread her fingers into his hair. “Me, in pretty wrapping.”
“If you don’t mind,” his hands dropped to the hem, “I’ll be unwrapping you now.”
Stepping away, Beatrice slid the shoulders down her arms, and the garment slipped off her body like in a shimmering wave to pool at her feet. Tugging his banyan off, Ernest walked away from the heavy cloth, and with a smooth motion, reminiscent of the first night they had made love, he lifted her into his arms and carried her to the large canopied bed.
Resting her on the pillows, he admired the way her hair fanned out across the dark cotton, and his eyes feasted on the sight of her. He rested his hand on her thigh, kissed her stomach, and then moved up to her nipples, hard buds of dark coral.
With a possessive grip on her hip, he pulled her close, “You’re still so beautiful to me.”
“And you’re still the most handsome man on this earth in my eyes,” Beatrice reached up to pull his face down to hers. “And a one kiss from you has my blood racing. Make love to me, Ernest.”
“My pleasure, Love.” Ernest moved to kiss her clavicle.
His lips caressed the length of the delicate bone, loving how he felt her breath increase with his kiss. Dipping his mouth to her breast, Ernest began lavishing attention on the tight peaks and lingered there.
Beatrice’s visceral reaction to his touch had him licking and suckling her breasts, the soft breath gasps escaping her had his blood pooling in his groin. Captivated by her moans, Ernest dipped his lips down the valley of her breasts.
Shifting to the side, he slid a hand down her side to grasp her leg and slid his hand under her knee, to pull her legs apart, while kissing her. Beatrice’s hands were skimming over his back, caressing his shoulders and murmuring lovely praises in his ears.
When his fingers skimmed over her core, he grinned, “Still so wet for me, Darling?”
“Always, My Love,” Beatrice kissed his ear. “I crave you always.”
Kissing her neck, Ernest petted her until she was delicately swollen before he eased two fingers inside her. Beatrice’s hips arched in expectation while he massaged her pearl and grinned when her hands gripped his hair as he pleasured her.
Her hitching breath and heaving breasts told him that Beatrice was nearly at the edge when he pulled away and dropped a kiss on her sternum. She calmed a little before Ernest found her lips again, and notching himself to her opening, slowly drove inside her.
Beatrice’s gasp, one he had heard a thousand times and one he wanted to listen to a thousand more, had a groan of pleasure rumbling from his chest. The pleasure that tightened his body at their merged bodies, temporarily took his breath away.
“Yes,” Beatrice sighed out in pleasure as her nails sank into his shoulder, “Move, Love, to me.”
He felt her hands skim over the faded scars on his back but smiled. Beatrice didn’t care about his scars any more than he did. Entranced with her warmth, Ernest gripped her hips and moved, hearing her erotic sighs and the feel of her body under his.
After bestowing a loving kiss on her lips, Ernest smiled, “Move with me, Darling. Let’s taste heaven together.”
Morning came with an unexpected intrusion; his brother Luther and his son Evan entered the room without warning. Thank goodness the covers were over their bodies, and he sat up with a scowl.
“What the deuce is going on here?” he snapped. “What right have you to barge into my bedroom unannounced? And for God’s sake, keep your voices down.”
“To give you a gift, Father,” Evan said, weathering his father’s scowl with a light grin.
“And that couldn’t wait for breakfast?” Ernest said tightly. “Will one of you nodcocks hand me my robe?”
“Ernest?” Beatrice’s wondering voice came from beside him. “What in the world is going on?”
While Evan handed his banyan, Ernest made quick work of donning it. “My brother and our son have decided to surprise us for Christmas morning, Darling,” he gave Luther a narrow glare. “So, what is it?”
Beatrice had sat up with him, but with the sheets to her chest and she notched her head on Ernest’s shoulder.
“Well, Anna, Evan and I came together and decided to send you away for a while,” Luther said, “Your not-so-subtle hints about traveling were well received, Ernest, and we’ve booked you two a trip to Italy.”
“Italy?” he asked, then looked at the two. “But—”
“I can manage your estate for three weeks, Brother,” Luther rolled his eyes, “I did study the same thing you did, albeit nearly eleven years after. Everything will be fine.”
“Is this some ploy to get me away for a while, so some shenanigans you know I would never approve of would happen?” Ernest asked, suspiciously.
“No,” Evan smiled brightly, “but if you don’t want the tickets, Father, I’ll happily take them off your hands.”
Rubbing his face, Ernest said, “Fine, fine, when do we leave?”
Evan flicked out his timepiece, “In about four hours.”
“Four!” Ernest exclaimed. “How can we leave in four hours?”
“Simple,” Luther said, “Your things are already packed from last night and are waiting in a carriage, and all you have to do is get dressed.”
“This reeks of mischief making to high heaven,” Ernest said.
Pressing herself on his back, Beatrice smiled, “Don’t get worked up, Love, their intention was honorable, but the execution was just misguided.” Looking to her son and brother-in-law, Beatrice said, “Thank you, Evan and Luther. It is a lovely gift. We’ll see you downstairs.”
After the door closed behind them, Beatrice smiled, “Well, look at that. We’re going to travel after all. We’ll have romantic walks, drink wine and make love under the stars, that I suspect shine brighter across the sea.”
Reaching for her hands, Ernest kissed her cheek, “You’re mistaken, Love, no star can shine brighter than your eyes,” After a long kiss to her lips, he said, “Shall we get going, Love?”
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