The scents and sounds of Christmas filled the mansion at Stony Cross Park, Lord Westcliff’s renowned Hampshire estate. Rich smells wafted from the kitchen . . . standing rib of beef, ham, turkey, smoked oysters, Yorkshire pudding, every imaginable kind of pie. Greenery and flowers bedecked every horizontal surface, and the fresh acrid pungency of a towering Christmas tree exerted its magic through the main hall and beyond. Servants hurried through the hallways on frantic errands to make everything ready for the Christmas Eve dance that evening. Children’s happy screams echoed through the halls as they scampered everywhere during a game of hide and seek.
“Mama,” one young voice was heard to whine, “why must I sit here and play carols when you know I abhor it? Why don’t you do it?”
“Because,” an older female voice retorted with a laugh, “my mother never loved me enough to force me to learn the piano.”
The reply was accompanied by dramatic musical chords of a distinctly antagonistic interpretation of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” “Mama, I wish you loved me just a little . . . tiny . . . smidgeon . . . less!”
Dazed by the general uproar, Lord Westcliff closed the door of his study and handed Sebastian a brandy. “This is the only safe place in the house,” he said. “I’d barricade the door, but there are still a few unfortunate men fighting their way through. I would hate to deny them their last chance of survival.”
“It’s every man for himself,” Sebastian said, taking a sip of brandy and settling into a comfortable chair. “If our sons and sons-in-law didn’t have the good sense to avoid the main hall, they deserve to be trampled.”
“Such a loss,” Westcliff said regretfully, pouring a brandy for himself. “Ah, well . . . I have some news to share about MacRae and Merritt.”
“I already know,” Sebastian said smugly. “They’re going to arrive tonight instead of tomorrow morning.”
Westcliff, who loved knowing things other people didn’t, smiled even more smugly. “It appears you haven’t been told why, however.”
Sebastian’s brows lifted.
Ceremoniously Westcliff took a folded letter from his pocket. “Lillian shared this with me. After I read it, I told her I had to be the one to tell you. I begged, as a matter of fact. She refused, and then I had to promise . . . no, we won’t even go into what I had to promise. However, she said I could give you the news as long as we’re able to act surprised when they announce it.”
“Good God, Westcliff, you’re positively giddy. Give that to me.” Leaning forward, Sebastian took the letter. He scanned it quickly, and a grin broke out on his face. “Well, naturally. Keir is descended from my line. Our virility is unmatched.”
Westcliff tried to look severe. “You realize, Kingston, that my first grandchild has been sired by your illegitimate offspring.”
“Yes, yes, who cares about legitimacy. This child will be magnificent. With my looks and your brains . . .”
“It could have my looks and your brains,” Westcliff pointed out.
“Don’t be such a pessimist. Bring the brandy bottle over here, and we’ll start making plans.”
And the two old friends grinned at each other as they clinked their glasses.
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