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With This Christmas Ring by Manda Collins (1)

Miss Merry Parks ignored the shocked gasp of her father’s butler as she swept into Parks House cradling a lustily crying infant, trailed by her exasperated maid, who was no doubt mentally composing her resignation letter.

“But Miss, what will Sir Thomas say?”

“It wasn’t to be helped, Milton,” she told the man who’d known her since she was in the nursery herself. “Now, please ask Mrs. Rhodes to have the little sitting room beside my bedchamber outfitted with the cradle from the nursery. I want to keep the child near me until we can find a wet nurse.” She’d known the moment she made the decision to take the babe into her own home that there would be an outcry from both the upstairs and downstairs residents of Parks House, but having just seen her dear friend Charlotte Smithson succumb to a fever following the birth, she was not going to allow the child to suffer the same fate. Besides, she had a very good idea of someone who could and should take on the care of the baby, and though requesting his assistance would reopen a wound she’d thought healed long ago, for both Charlotte’s and the child’s sake, she would ask.

Not waiting to see if her orders were followed, she carried the infant, who had been growing quieter the longer they were out of the carriage, up to her own bedchamber and soothed her as best she could while she waited for the crib to be readied.

Fortunately, Merry had handled the infants of other friends over the years, so she was not as flummoxed as other unmarried ladies would be to find themselves the unexpected caretaker of an infant. And if truth were told, there was a time when she’d looked forward to holding her own children. That this child in particular was cousin to the man she’d thought would father them was especially bittersweet.

“Effie,” she said once she had made the child, who had finally fallen asleep, comfortable on the silk counterpane of her own bed, “I know your feelings about this, but I would like for you to ask around downstairs to see if any of the housemaids has experience with babies. Until we can find a nurse, I’ll need someone to manage the day-to-day care and feeding of little Lottie. At least until I can be assured that her father’s family will do right by her.”

As her maid bustled about the room, hanging Merry’s pelisse to be brushed out later and making preparations for her mistress’s bath, her stiff movements and pursed lips told the story of her concern.

“It’s not that I don’t see why you’d want to help your friend, Miss Merry,” Effie began as she stepped into the dressing room with Merry’s dressing gown, “but your father . . .”

“Will have to see reason,” Merry said, stroking a finger over the baby’s gossamer soft cheek. Poor Charlotte would have made a good mother. And Merry’s assurance that she’d find the child’s father had given her friend some comfort, she hoped. She would not go back on her word now, no matter how her father might react. “I made a promise, Effie. And I mean to keep it, even if Papa becomes incensed. It will only be for a week at most that his peace is disturbed. And even then, he likely won’t hear anything. You know how he gets when he’s deep in study. A Catherine wheel could be set off in the parlor and he’d barely notice.”

Sir Thomas Parks was one of England’s foremost classics scholars, and though he was often supportive of his daughter’s charitable endeavors, he also complained that Merry’s crusades cast shadows over both her reputation and his own standing among his colleagues. Not to mention that they took time away from the work she did for him as his assistant. It was difficult to imagine now, settled as she was in her father’s shadow, that she’d once upon a time been ready to break away and seek a life, a true partnership, with a man who valued her for more than her neat penmanship and organizational skills. But she’d been forcibly reminded of that long-ago dream at the very mention of Wrotham.

Even as the thought arose, however, she stopped herself. What use was there in dwelling on that at this point? If the life she had now was a far cry from the one she’d once imagined, it was a good one. And she’d done good work with her father. Contributed to some very important scholarship. There was little comfort to be had in regrets this late in the day, especially when the gentleman in question had very likely forgotten about her almost as soon as they’d parted. At least if his grandmother was to be believed, he had. It was the dowager Lady Wrotham, after all, who had convinced her to let Alexander go.

“It will only be for a week or so,” she repeated. And, she thought to herself, since she’d given her father her loyalty for all these years, the least he might give her is a week to keep her word to her dying friend.

Perhaps knowing it was futile to argue with her mistress, Effie settled for shaking her head before heading downstairs to oversee the heating of Merry’s bathwater.

Alone now with the baby, Merry gazed down on the slumbering infant, unable to look at her without recalling Charlotte as she’d last seen her, pale from blood loss and desperate for Merry’s assurances that her child would be well cared for.

Even if the midwife hadn’t already warned her, Merry would have known that her friend only had a few short moments left of life. And she set out to give her what comfort she could, even as she struggled with the notion that this sweet, generous friend would soon be gone. How could the world be so horribly unfair?

“Whatever you need, dear Charlotte,” she said in a soothing tone as she clasped the other woman’s cold hand in hers. “I promise you I will see that little Lottie is well cared for. I’ll raise her in my own household if need be.”

But Charlotte, her hair lank with sweat, shook her head a little, “She should be with her father. She deserves the protection of his name. He owes that to her at least.”

Merry hadn’t had the courage to ask yet about who the father of her friend’s child was, but Charlotte’s words gave her pause. “Do you mean you married him, Charlotte?” To her shame, she’d assumed that her friend had succumbed to the lure of a seduction. When she’d asked before about whom the child’s father might be, Charlotte had been reticent, only saying that he’d betrayed her and she couldn’t bear to talk of it.

At the mention of marriage, Charlotte gave a wan smile. “Eloped,” she said, her breath growing scarce. “But he was called away. Promised to come back. But never did.”

Hating to ask, but knowing she’d need them, Merry asked, “Where are your marriage lines?”

“William has them,” Charlotte said. “Said if he didn’t come back to call at Wrotham House in Berkeley Square. Letters went unanswered. I did call, but they turned me away.” She took a gulp of air, the string of words taxing what little strength she had left.

At the mention of Wrotham House, Merry felt her own heart quicken. After so many years, how was it possible that even his name could stir such a strong response? It had been five years since she’d laid eyes on Wrotham. And nearly as long since she’d determined to consign their time together to that part of her heart that remained locked securely to this day. Blinking down at her friend, she squeezed Charlotte’s hand and made herself focus on the present. There would be time enough to think about the past later.

“Who is William to Viscount Wrotham?” she asked her friend. “I know Lord Wrotham has a younger brother, but I do not recall him being named William.”

“Cousin,” Charlotte gasped, her eyes desperate now. “Please find him, Merry. Please.”

Merry had assured her she would do all she could to find the baby’s father, and as if she’d only been waiting for Merry’s word, her friend gave a slight sigh and breathed her last.

Blinking back tears at the memory, Merry gazed down at the innocent child who had, through no fault of her own, caused such grief. She might learn one day that her birth had taken her mother’s life, but Merry would do all she could to see that Lottie knew she was loved.

But first she would see to it that Lottie’s father did right by her. It would mean visiting the home she’d once thought would be her own, and, perhaps, even speaking to Alexander.

Thanks to a gossip column, she knew that the annual Lords of Anarchy Christmas Ball would be held this week. And Wrotham’s name was among those listed as likely to attend. Had it only been yesterday that she’d seen his name and congratulated herself on how unaffected she’d been?

What a difference there was between merely reading a name and facing the prospect of a face-to-face meeting.

If it were for any other reason than to do right by Charlotte, she very much feared she would have done all she could to avoid such a reunion. But looking down at the sleeping baby, she knew she had no choice.

“Tomorrow,” she said softly, “we will introduce you to your cousin Lord Wrotham.”

She only hoped in the years since they’d last seen one another, his sense of decency hadn’t changed.