The Christmas Wager [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Jamie Fessenden
eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: To discharge a debt to his friend, Andrew Nash, Lord Thomas Barrington returns to the family estate he fled six years earlier after refusing to marry the woman his father had chosen. To Thomas's dismay, Barrington Hall is no longer the joyful home he remembers from his childhood, and his young niece has no idea what Christmas is. Determined to bring Christmas back to the gloomy estate, Thomas must confront his tyrannical father, salvage a brother lost in his own misery, and attempt to fight off his father's machinations. As the holidays near, Thomas and Andrew begin to realize they are more than merely close friends... and those feelings are not only a threat to their social positions but, in Victorian England, to their lives as well.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2011
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4 Reader Ratings:
Lord Thomas Barrington rolled over, shielding his face from the harsh sunlight coming through the window of his room at the University Club.
"It's no good, Thomas," came a man's voice, "I've already summoned a carriage. You'd better get up."
Thomas opened one eye and saw his friend, Andrew Nash, sitting near the bed, dressed in his finest riding clothes and looking far too cheerful.
"I feel wretched."
"No doubt," Andrew replied unsympathetically. "You finished off that entire bottle of Scotch last night."
Both men were in their mid twenties, recently having graduated from Oxford. It was here, at the club, that they'd first made each other's acquaintance three years earlier. Nash wasn't nobility, but he'd managed to turn his late father's import business into an exceedingly profitable enterprise, and Thomas was shamed to see that Andrew's traveling clothes were of a far finer make than he himself could afford.
He sat up and tentatively placed his feet over the edge of the bed.
"What kind of friend lets me drink a fifth of Scotch by myself?" he asked irritably, running his hand through his thick chestnut hair, as if that might somehow soothe the dull ache that gripped his head. The floor was cold against his bare feet, but he lacked the motivation to find his slippers.
Andrew found them for him and slid them across the floor with his walking stick until they were within Thomas's reach. "I could hardly have stopped you," the handsome blond commented. "Besides, being drunk made you more susceptible."
"Susceptible?" Thomas asked. "Susceptible to what?"
Then it all came back to him, and the significance of Andrew's outfit finally filtered through his alcohol-muddled brain. "Oh no. Andrew, you couldn't possibly hold me to a promise made while I was in my cups."
The young man's blond curls and mischievous smile always made Thomas think of an angelic Michelangelo sculpture turned bad. Long-lashed blue eyes watched him as he dragged himself over to the nightstand to splash some water on his face.
"Unless you'd care to settle your gambling debts yourself...."
"Andrew," Thomas said, raising his face to regard him in the mirror. "It's crude to talk of money matters so blatantly."
Andrew shrugged, unconcerned. Normally, a man of his station would be more respectful of the son of a duke. Indeed, a man of his station would normally never wake a nobleman up in the morning and watch him stagger around before he'd made himself presentable. But their friendship had long ago grown to the point where such formalities were dispensed with--at least in private.
"I'm afraid I lack your breeding. So forgive me. But you were the one foolish enough to bet Stratford money you knew you didn't have."
Thomas reached for his shaving brush, wet it, and began swirling it around on a bar of soap. "I thought I could win."
"But you didn't."
Slathering the soap on his chin was easy enough, but Thomas's hands were shaking a bit, making the idea of running his straight razor along his neck somewhat frightening. "I do appreciate you saving me from humiliation, Andrew, but you must understand. I am no longer welcome at Barrington Hall, at Christmastime or any other. I simply can't take you there."
"Nonsense," Andrew replied, setting his cane aside to come close and take the potentially deadly weapon out of his friend's unsteady hand. "It's been years since you left. I'm sure your father would love to see you."
"You don't know him."
"Well, neither do you. Not after six years. He may have changed his mind about a great many things. And you promised last night to take me to the country, in exchange for forgiving your debt."
"I was tricked."
Thomas allowed Andrew to take his chin in hand and begin shaving him. It was mildly embarrassing, but Andrew was so much better at it than he was. And Thomas had been forced to dismiss his valet years ago, when his allowance proved too paltry to afford such a luxury.
He would be lost without Andrew, truly. The man was the dearest friend one could ask for, always there when he needed companionship, always willing to cover his debts, even nursing Thomas when he was ill.
And what was he asking for in return? To spend the holidays in the country, just this once. At Barrington Hall. Andrew had never been there, of course, so he no doubt had an overly idyllic image in his head about life in a country manor. But he had no family, after the passing of his mother four years ago, and the holidays seemed to weigh upon him. And Thomas certainly did not have enough money to repay him for last night. Nor would he for a very long time.
Thomas sighed. "Very well. But I warn you, we may be turned away at the door."
Andrew simply gave him that mischievous smile again.
Thomas had insisted on tea before leaving the club, which delayed them further and made the driver of their carriage irritable. But Andrew simply gave the man a large tip for waiting and helped Thomas climb into the carriage. Then they were off for Barrington.
Thomas, of course, fell back to sleep immediately. Andrew sat across from him, watching his friend sleep, the tousled hair and sensuous mouth so beautiful and sweet in repose. The blond sighed and forced himself to look away, at the dirty London streets slipping past the window, at the novel he was pretending to read, at anything else.
What would happen, he wondered, if Thomas ever opened those soft jade-colored eyes and saw Andrew watching him with eyes full of not only affection, but desire? It was too horrible to contemplate.
Someday, Andrew knew, Thomas would drift away from him. Their intense, close friendship would fade; Thomas would find comfort in the arms of a woman. It was inevitable. But until that day, Thomas was his. Not in the way Andrew desperately longed for, but in the only way it could ever be. So, for now, he would revel in it, and fight to keep the truth from ever slipping out--that he loved Lord Thomas Barrington with all of his heart.
My God, Andrew thought, if he ever were to discover it! Thomas would be horrified. Repelled. As any respectable English gentleman would be. At best, he would turn Andrew away and never see him again. At worst, he might press charges as well. This sort of thing was against the law, as Andrew well knew.
He forced these dire thoughts out of his head, and turned back to the carriage window as they left London behind.
The village of Barrington was several hours away from London, and somehow Thomas managed to sleep through the entire journey, except for brief stops in Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, where he managed to rouse himself for relief and something small to eat. Andrew let him sleep, though he found the journey dull without a companion to talk to. His novel quickly bored him, so he contented himself with watching the scenery out the carriage window.
He'd never been to the country as a boy, as his family had lived in London and had no living relations outside the city. Andrew's mother had spoken often of how she missed the small country cottage she'd lived in as a young girl, painting a charming picture of the English countryside that made Andrew yearn to see it. But his father had been born in London and, to the best of Andrew's knowledge, never set foot outside the city until the day he died.
Perhaps he was being foolish. Most likely, he would find that Barrington Hall was drafty and unpleasant, and he would quickly find himself longing for the modern amenities London had to offer. But his best friend was a lord, the second son of the Duke of Barrington! How often did one get an invitation to spend the holidays with a noble family--even if the invitation was forced? Thomas had described the great hall full of candles and gay Christmas balls, and feasts of goose and pheasant and Christmas puddings. It sounded so wonderful.
Too, Andrew desperately wanted to see where Thomas had spent his childhood. Perhaps some part of him thought it would strengthen the bond they shared.
He was concerned, of course, that the holiday would prove an unhappy time for Thomas. The young man described his father as a tyrant who had tried to force Thomas into a marriage to a woman he hadn't loved. Just as he'd forced Thomas's older brother, Edward, into an arranged marriage. Thomas had fled to London, and it was only through the intervention of his mother that he did not find himself cut off entirely, but at the receiving end of a small allowance.
Andrew prayed that his foolishness wouldn't make matters worse for Thomas, but his friend had spoken fondly of the mother he feared he might never see again, and the niece he'd read about in her letters, but never met. After losing the last member of his own family, it seemed tragic to Andrew that Thomas should remain cut off from those he loved because of an argument six years in the past. Surely there was a possibility of reconciliation.
If worse comes to worse, Andrew told himself, I'll support the bastard. For as long as he'll let me.
The sun was beginning to set when the carriage rounded a small hill. And suddenly there it was--Barrington Hall, lit orange by the setting sun against a darkening sky, with the glass of hundreds of windows reflecting red-gold fire. Andrew's breath caught at the sight of it. He'd never imagined it being this spectacular. The hall was enormous, rivaling any of the buildings Andrew had seen in London, and surrounded by immaculately manicured lawn--though that was withered and brown at this time of year--and evergreen hedges. A vast forest lay beyond that, and some distance to the south, Andrew could see the small village named for the hall.
As the carriage drove up to the wrought-iron gate, and the coachman conversed with the gatekeeper, Andrew roused his friend.
"Welcome home, Lord Barrington," he said cheerfully.
Thomas rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and peered bleary-eyed through the carriage window. "Let's hope Mother doesn't allow Father to keep his hunting rifles in the house."
* * * *
When the carriage pulled up in front of the stone steps that led up to the massive columns of Barrington Hall's facade, a little girl in a bright blue dress and a heavy wool overcoat came hopping down the steps alongside the servants. Thomas didn't recognize her, but then she appeared to be only about four years old. Presumably, she was the niece his mother had written about.
What was her name? Susan. That was it.
Andrew allowed him to step out of the carriage first, and the little girl was upon him the moment his feet touched the ground. She was a pretty little thing, with wide eyes and lovely red hair swept back with a blue ribbon. Now that he could see her clearly, the resemblance to her mother was obvious.
But she regarded him with a rather serious expression for one so young.
"Are you Susan?" he asked when the girl seemed disinclined to speak first.
She nodded, reaching a hand up to take the butler's hand.
"She's a bit shy, my lord," Simcox said, smiling fondly at her. Then he turned his smile upon Thomas. "It's good to have you back, sir! I'm afraid I wasn't informed of your coming, so your room hasn't yet been prepared. But we'll soon see to it."
"Thank you, Simcox." Thomas stepped aside to allow Andrew to climb down from the carriage. "My friend, Mr. Nash, will also be staying with us."
"Very good, sir."
Thomas leaned down to smile at Susan in a way that he hoped was unthreatening. He hadn't the faintest idea how to behave with children. "Hello, Susan. I'm your Uncle Thomas."
"Hello," she replied politely, though she still regarded him warily.
"Has your father ever mentioned me?"
She shook her head.
That couldn't be a good sign, Thomas thought. Had his very name become a dirty word at Barrington?
He was further disconcerted when they entered the great hall. At this time of year, six years ago, Barrington Hall would have been festooned with sweet scented spruce and balsam, and ribbons in crimson and gold. Now, with Christmas less than a week away, there wasn't a trace of holiday decoration. Not a single bough of evergreen nor sprig of holly. Worse, the two large mantels on either side of the hall were draped with black cloth, one also sporting a portrait of the late Lady Anne Barrington. Admittedly, she'd been a very beautiful woman, with flaming red hair like her daughter's. But the overall effect was positively dreary. Was this to be the best he could offer Andrew for a country Christmas celebration?
Simcox relieved them of their coats. Thomas was about to ask the butler about the evident lack of holiday cheer in the hall when the door to the parlor opened and Duchess Barrington--his mother--appeared.
Now in her late forties and a grandmother, Duchess Barrington was still a strikingly beautiful woman, her deep chestnut hair seemingly untouched by age and drawn back in fashionable braids, and her figure still trim in a white house dress with blue lace. Thomas suppressed an urge to rush to her and take her into his arms, not knowing what his reception would be. But he needn't have worried. Duchess Barrington's face lit up at the sight of her son, and she came forward to greet him warmly.
"Thomas! I didn't believe it, when they told me you'd come."
She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. "College has been good to you, I see. You've grown even more handsome!"
"Mother," Thomas said, blushing slightly, "I'd like to introduce Mr. Andrew Nash. He's a dear friend from London."
She took Andrew's hand and said, "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Nash."
"The pleasure is all mine, Duchess Barrington."
Thomas could see Andrew glancing around at the barren hall and he couldn't resist saying, "Mother, I've brought Andrew for Christmas...."
His voice trailed off, but Duchess Barrington knew perfectly well what he was getting at. She patted her granddaughter on the head and said, "Susan, why don't you go up to the nursery? Katie will have your dinner ready soon."
The little girl gave Thomas one last cautious look, and then ran up the broad staircase that led from the great hall to the second floor. Duchess Barrington smiled at both young men and said, "Let us retire to the parlor, shall we? Simcox? Would you kindly ask Charlotte to bring us some tea? Thank you."
Then, with the air of one accustomed to being in charge of her domain, the woman returned to the parlor, leaving her son and Andrew to follow. Thomas caught Andrew smiling at him, his eyes twinkling. As it sometimes did, the beauty of that smile caught Thomas unawares, making him glance away quickly. He was fairly certain most men did not have to fight an occasional desire to kiss their male friends on the mouth. It disturbed him, but as always, he pushed it out of his mind.
Still, he couldn't resist touching Andrew lightly on the back to guide him into the parlor. It was an affectionate gesture, but not unseemly. Or so Thomas thought. Andrew quickly stepped forward to break the contact, which left Thomas wondering if he had done something inappropriate, after all.
At any rate, Andrew appeared to have taken a liking to his mother, which pleased him.
The parlor was just as Thomas remembered it--tastefully done in blue and gray, with a burgundy Persian carpet to add color. The mantel over the fireplace held an assortment of porcelain figurines--children and animals, mostly--that the servants had always grumbled about having to clean so often, in order to keep them free of smoke and soot. The room was unusually small, compared to other rooms in Barrington Hall, but his mother had always liked it because it felt cozy to her.
Not until Duchess Barrington was settled in her chair by the fire, and the maid had come to bring them their tea, did she address her son's question. "As you must know, Thomas, from the letters I've sent, Anne passed away three years ago, from scarlet fever."
"Yes, I received the letter."
He could tell from the look she gave him that his failure to respond to the letter--or indeed, to any of her letters, over the years--irked her, but she diverted her gaze to Andrew. "Anne was Susan's mother, and the wife of Thomas's older brother, Edward."
"My condolences, Duchess Barrington."
"Thank you," the woman replied graciously. "Well, of course Edward was devastated. It happened just before Christmas, and he refused to celebrate the holidays at all.
"Your father and I," she added, looking pointedly at Thomas, "respected his wishes, of course."
"Of course," Thomas responded. "But that was three years ago, Mother."
Duchess Barrington sighed wistfully and took a sip of her tea. "Yes. I quite agree that Edward has been dwelling on this tragedy for far too long. It cannot be healthy for him. Nor for Susan. But he won't listen to me, and your father has little concern these days for anything other than those wretched dogs."
Dogs? Thomas decided to let that one go, for now. He stood from his place on the settee beside Andrew and began pacing, a dangerous thing to do in the close quarters of the sitting room. "Mother, this is really intolerable. I promised Andrew that I would show him a real Barrington Hall Christmas, and what do I find? No decorations, no tree, I can only presume there are no plans for a ball--"
Thomas was gesticulating wildly now, as he often did when he was frustrated, "Why, there isn't even any snow!"
His mother clucked at him. "Thomas, you can hardly blame us for lack of snow."
"It's all right, Thomas," Andrew said, attempting, no doubt, to head off one of Thomas's infamous rants. But he was hiding a smile. He always seemed to find some kind of perverse amusement in Thomas's overzealousness. "Really. I'm quite sympathetic to your brother's circumstances."
"Well, I'm not," Thomas stated firmly. "Never mind how any of us feel about it, he has a little girl to look out for!"
"I hardly think you're in a position to give your brother advice on childrearing," Duchess Barrington said.
This brought Thomas up short. It was true, he knew very little about children. And this particular child had lived her entire life without his benefit. He hadn't even been to Lady Anne's funeral.
But it was Christmas, dash it! And here was a four-year-old girl trapped in a cavernous old hall without a single holly berry to brighten its cheerless corridors. Surely she deserved a champion?
"Regardless, Mother," Thomas said, calming himself, "I feel I should have a word with Edward. The girl deserves to have some fun over the holidays."
His mother sighed and put her tea cup down on its delicate china saucer. "If you wanted to speak with Edward, you would have done better to stay in London. He's there attending to some business for a few days."
Thomas felt his frustration mounting. He really had no say over anything at the hall anymore. He could hardly take it into his own hands to start decorating without getting Edward's permission.
While he was mulling this over, he was dimly aware of a commotion in the outer hall, an odd sound like hundreds of tiny pebbles clicking against the stone floor.
"Really, Thomas," Duchess Barrington said, "you have far more to worry about than Christmas, I think. Your father, for one thing."
Thomas was almost knocked over by a large hound darting between his legs and into the room, the animal's toenails clicking against the floor until its muddy paws reached the Persian carpet.
His mother was horrified. She stood, attempting to shoo the dog away from the tea and cakes with her handkerchief. "Get out of here, you filthy brute!"
But it was no use. Two more dogs shoved their way past Thomas, and one jumped up on the settee, placing its giant paws in Andrew's lap and sending the tea cup Andrew had been drinking from flying out of his hand. The cup shattered against the table.
"What are you doing here?" The voice that came from behind Thomas was a furious growl.
Thomas turned reluctantly to face his father, the Duke of Barrington. He'd grown a bit heavier since Thomas had last seen him, but otherwise he looked fit. Apart from the fact that his face was red with anger. He was holding one of the hounds by the collar, restraining the beast from joining its brothers in the parlor, as he glared at his prodigal son.
"I thought we were well shut of you!"
* * * *
Andrew liked dogs. But three was a bit much for a room this size, and the one in his lap was threatening to tear his best breeches. He managed to push the large hunting hound off the settee, but that merely caused the dog to bump against the table and rattle the china tea service.
"Henry!" Duchess Barrington snapped at her husband. "Get these beasts out of my parlor, at once!"
The duke whistled loudly, and the dogs nearly knocked Thomas over again as they rushed to the side of their master. "Come here, boys!"
Thomas was looking a bit pale, but he took a deep breath and said, "Father--"
"Don't 'Father' me," the duke interrupted sharply. "You turned your back on this family and your duty years ago. You're no son of mine. And you are no longer welcome in this house."
"Henry," his wife said, attempting to calm him.
But the duke was beyond listening. He brandished his walking stick at his son. "Isn't it enough that I pay to keep you in that club of yours in London? Do you want me to cut you off entirely? I want you out of here by morning! If I catch the smallest glimpse of you after luncheon, I'll have you thrown off the premises!"
He stormed away, calling for his dogs to follow.
Thomas said nothing, but he looked miserable, and Andrew had to fight the desire to go to him. There was no comfort he could offer.
He busied himself picking up the fragments of the shattered teacup, while Duchess Barrington rang for the servants.
"I've told him repeatedly to keep those animals out of the house," she muttered, then noticed her son's dark expression. "Thomas, you know how your father is."
"Unforgiving," Thomas replied coldly.
"Stubborn," Duchess Barrington amended. "Perhaps you can have a talk with him in the morning, when he's gotten over the shock of seeing you."
A young servant girl appeared in the doorway, peering around Thomas shyly, not wanting to push past him. "You rang, Your Grace?"
"Ah, Charlotte. Yes. The dogs have gotten into the parlor again. Would you please do what you can to get the mud out of the carpet and the upholstery?"
"And one of the cups has been broken--that's quite all right, Mr. Nash. Charlotte will take care of it."
Andrew placed the fragments on his saucer and stood, doing his best to act as though none of this were of any consequence. But Thomas's unhappy expression was weighing on him heavily.
"Oh dear," Duchess Barrington said, "I see the brutes have damaged your outfit."
Andrew smiled. "It's merely a bit of mud, Duchess Barrington. I'm sure it will come out."
"I think, perhaps, we should retire for the evening," Thomas said, having found his voice at last. "That is, unless you think we should leave straight away, Mother."
His mother waved a dismissive hand. "I see no reason you shouldn't stay the night. Charlotte, have rooms been prepared for Thomas and his guest?"
"Yes, ma'am. Mr. Simcox ordered His Lordship's old room prepared, as well as the guest room beside it."
Thomas kissed his mother goodnight, and much to Andrew's relief, the two young men were quickly taken upstairs.
He was beginning to regret making this arrangement with Thomas. Andrew had always been under the impression that Thomas cared little what the duke thought, but now he could see that Thomas was indeed very distraught over being unwelcome. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to leave first thing in the morning.
The room Charlotte showed him to was palatial. It was the largest bedroom he'd ever seen, with an enormous four-poster surrounded by heavy maroon bed curtains, and a sitting area with an ornately carved table of dark mahogany, with matching chairs. A silver tray had been laid out on the table with a brandy decanter and a couple snifters. Two burgundy upholstered armchairs flanked a white marble fireplace that Andrew could have walked into, had it not currently contained a blazing fire. He could have lived in this room alone, for it was larger than most apartments he'd seen.
Thomas had disappeared into his own room the moment they arrived upstairs, but shortly after the servant girl left, there was a faint knock on the connecting door, and Thomas let himself in.
"I hope you find the room comfortable," Thomas said.
He was clearly still in a foul mood, and looking for company. Andrew had seen this side of Thomas before.
"It's superb," he said, smiling as he removed his overcoat. "The hall is magnificent, Thomas. Far beyond anything I'd imagined."
Thomas harrumphed and dropped into one of the armchairs. "It's far less than I imagined. My father has always been impossible, but what can Edward be thinking? That little girl probably doesn't even remember what Christmas is!"
This was one of the things Andrew adored about Thomas. In many ways, the man could often be childish and temperamental, but he was, at heart, a man who felt passionately about defending others. Andrew took a step toward him, wanting to put a hand on his friend's shoulder, but knowing it would be inappropriate. He rested it on the back of Thomas's chair instead.
"She isn't your daughter," he said, sensibly. "You don't really even know her."
Thomas sighed. "Yes, I know. I really should have come back when her mother passed away, but...."
He trailed off, apparently disinclined to finish the thought. He noticed the mud on Andrew's thigh and reached out to brush it with his hand. "I'm afraid my father's dogs have ruined your riding clothes."
The gesture was probably a mere afterthought--certainly not meant to be arousing. But the light touch of Thomas's fingers on Andrew's inner thigh, scant inches away from his crotch, made Andrew's breath catch in his throat. He attempted to disguise it with a slight cough and moved away to stand near the fireplace, praying his arousal wasn't obvious through the fabric of his breeches.
"I'm certain the mud will wash out," he said. Then he noted, "The servants seem to have given me some brandy. Shall I pour you some?"
"No," Thomas replied, looking a bit peaked, "My head still feels dreadful, after last night. I suppose I'll go to bed early."
He stood, but hesitated before leaving. "I'm so sorry about all of this, Andrew."
"You've nothing to be sorry about," Andrew said, giving him a warm smile. "Truly, I'm the one who should apologize, for putting you in this situation. I failed to realize how difficult it would be for you. It was very selfish of me."
Thomas gave him a fleeting smile, then left.
Andrew groaned and collapsed into the other armchair. What a mess he'd made of things.
* * * *
Thomas lay in his bed, so familiar, yet somehow alien after six years, hoping for sleep to finally put an end to this horrible day. He couldn't honestly say he was surprised by his father's reaction. But if he were being honest, he had to admit he'd hoped enough time had gone by for the duke to calm down. Apparently not.
Yet if he were being truly honest, Thomas thought, he would admit that what was keeping him awake was something far more troubling.
Why did he keep having this desire to touch Andrew? What was wrong with him? It was odd behavior, and his friend clearly disliked it.
Andrew was the best friend he'd ever had. Thomas didn't want to lose him. He couldn't lose him. So there was only one thing for it. Thomas would have to stop touching him.
So, with this new resolution firm in his mind, Thomas at last drifted off to sleep.