Patience Phillips stared out the window at the falling snow, her heart as dead as the winter evening. The parlor, bedecked with festive decorations of gold, silver, and green, glistened in the flickering light from the fireplace.
Being forced to marry a man she didn’t love had definitely put a damper on the holiday.
“It’s so romantic.” Her sister Violet’s voice rose like an excited little girl rather than a young lady of sixteen. “Every girl hopes to marry an earl.”
“Not this girl, and not that haughty Michael Davis.” Patience sat on the couch, grabbed an embroidered pillow, and gave it a brutal twist. She’d rather twist the earl’s neck instead. “He was arrogant as a child and I doubt he has changed.”
Violet’s bottom lip trembled. Mother had frightened her with warnings that the family would end up in the poorhouse when Father died unless Patience married the wealthy earl.
“Don’t worry. I will marry for the family.” She cut her eyes to the dais table in the corner. “If he still wants to marry me after today’s meeting.”
Soon after her sister’s departure, the heavy panel door creaked open to reveal the infamous lord. His steps clicked across the stone floor as he strode toward Patience. She stared at the shiny silver buckles on his black leather boots until his nearness forced her to look up.
Could this be the boy who tormented her as a child? His thick dark hair tumbled over his brow, and he brushed it back. She was tall for a woman, but she had to look up at the earl. Yet another change from childhood.
“Patience Phillips.” He took her hand and softly kissed it. “The lovely lady who is not at all like her name.”
She jerked her hand from his grasp. “Insulting me is not the way to win my favor. Perhaps you believe I will marry you no matter how rude you act.”
He held up his hands. “I do not consider my comment to be an insult. I’ve never been the patient sort either. And I do not want you to marry me out of duress.”
“Why do you want to marry me?” She bit her tongue. Too forward, Mother would say.
His indigo eyes widened. He removed his jacket and draped it over his arm.
She cleared her throat. “Our fathers arranged this marriage, but since you are a man,” she paused to calm her shaky words, “I’m sure they allowed you to express your opinion. I doubt someone of your reputation would want to marry an impatient country girl.”
He frowned and took a step back. “What do you know of my reputation?”
“My lord, certainly you don’t expect me to stand here and list your accomplishments.”
“Please, call me Michael as you did when we were children.”
Patience nodded, but she still didn’t trust this scalawag.
He sighed. “It appears you do not have a high opinion of me. I would like to know what you’ve heard.”
“Only that you are at the top of London society, and many women seek your attention. Rumor has it that at a Christmas party last year ladies stood in line so you could raise a twig of mistletoe above their heads and claim a kiss.”
“I have heard that story too, but I must confess there is not a word of truth in it.”
He shook his head. “Not a word.”
She’d been foolish to believe her gossipy friends. How would she tempt him into her mistletoe trap now?
Patience rubbed her sweaty palms on her muslin skirt. “Why did you agree to marry me?”
“I spent many fond days at this manor as a lad. Is it surprising I would want to spend more time here?”
“So, you admit that you are marrying me to gain my father’s property.”
“Whoever marries you will receive this property, but that is only one benefit.”
She touched her wrinkled brow. She couldn’t think straight with Michael so close.
With one hand he fumbled in the jacket draped across his arm. “I have a Christmas present for you.” He handed her a book. The word Emma decorated the cover. She took a deep breath of the warm, smoky air. How did he know that books brought her great joy?
“I’ve been told the author is very talented,” Michael said. “I hope you will like it.”
From what she’d observed, most men weren’t interested in their future wife’s pastimes or intellect. “This is wonderful, but why would you give me a book?”
“When we were children, you enjoyed reading.”
“You used to laugh at me for reading. You teased me in front of your friends, and I ran away in tears.”
A blush touched his cheeks. “I have matured. I appreciate a woman with intellect. I apologize for my childish behavior.”
He glanced around the room. “Someone gathered mistletoe. What a perfect way to set the past behind us and start a new relationship.” He walked to the table and reached for the bowl.
“Don’t touch that!” She clutched her skirt and rushed toward Michael. She grabbed the crystal globe, slinging mistletoe all over the floor.
“What’s the matter, Patience? You look frantic.”
“I placed stinging nettle beneath the mistletoe. I thought you’d run away and leave me alone when you saw how spiteful I could be.”
He lifted his brows. “You wanted to get rid of me badly to take the risk of handling stinging nettle.”
She waved her hand in front of her face. “No risk. Unlike most people I’ve never had more than a small rash when exposed to the needles.”
A mischievous smile curved Michael’s lips. “I am not allergic either.”
“That’s quite a coincidence.”
“I think it’s providential.” He reached into the bowl and grabbed a remaining sprig of mistletoe snuggled between the stinging nettle. He lifted it above her head. “A sign we were made for each other.”
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