I suspected I must look particularly hapless and forlorn when my butler, Hartford, offered to stay behind for the holiday season I generally gave the staff time off for. He’d never made the offer before, being eager like all the rest, to spend time with their families rather than look after me.

With a forced smile, I shook my head.

“No, Hartford. You are free to depart with all the others and I will see you the day after the new year.”

Hartford hesitated. “I did set up the kitchen with plenty of provisions as usual.”

“I am sure you did. You are a godsend, as usual. Happy Christmas to you and your family.”

Hartford began to turn away then. But then he looked back at me. “Do you expect your usual guest to visit? Lord Christopher?”

“I do not. But all is well, nevertheless. See you on January second.”

My reluctant butler became less reluctant then and hurried out before, I suspected, I changed my mind. He was wise.

I sighed with a tiny bit of melodramatic melancholy when the house was empty save for myself. I considered heading back to London. While there was no season of social engagements at the moment, I knew there were still my usual haunts that would be open to me. And in many ways, London could be quite festive during the Christmas season.

I decided I’d have a nice meal there at my country estate, perhaps drink far too much sherry after, and give the idea some thought by morning. If I decided it still had merit, I would ride to London.

Lord Christopher, as Hartford had alluded to, would be spending the holidays with his new wife and infant daughter, I imagined. An arranged marriage, of course, as most were. I’d escaped such a thing for along time myself and intended to continue doing so. I didn’t care which of my living relatives would inherit everything upon my death. I’d be past caring, wouldn’t I? But I had no parents left to nudge me into marriage to a female I could barely stomach. In that, I guessed, I was fortunate.

I knew Chris would be expected to tow the line in that direction, but it still hurt, and that was unfair. I had not seen him since the wedding, but I had heard, of course, of the birth of their daughter.

Isabella.

Since his wedding, I had hardly been celibate. I had physical needs, after all. I’d even engaged quite briefly with sex with Shaw, though I’d once vowed I would not. Shaw was blond and handsome and in some ways reminded me of Chris, though he was far more polished and sophisticated than Chris had ever been. Which is why I preferred Chris. Well, many reasons actually.

But whatever satisfaction I got from others it was hollow compared to my times with Chris.

I was on my second sherry, seriously convinced I would leave for London in the morning, when there was a rather loud knocking upon my front door.

For a moment, I waited for Hartford to answer it, then remembered it was me alone. I thought about ignoring it, but then someone had come all the way out to the middle of nowhere to see me.

I struggled out of my chair, placed my glass of sherry aside, and made my way out of the parlor and to the door.

It occurred to me as I unbolted it, that it was likely someone in need during this particular season of which, I knew, there were many. I would give them whatever I could.

But instead of a beggar or poor villager as I expected, Lord Christopher stood upon my doorstep looking almost absurdly fetching with a hat upon his blond head and a scarf wrapped around his neck. An overcoat dotted with the first hint of falling rain.

“Chris?”

He smiled. “None other. And it has stared to rain, so…would it be permissible for me to come inside?”

Permissible?

I yanked him inside so fast I was amazed I hadn’t broken anything.

Looking past him for a moment to ensure he was alone, I drew him tightly into my arms, thrilled to hear his hearty laugh.

“I can’t believe you’re here. I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Silly man. Where else would I be?” He drew back just enough to cup my face with his gloved hands and thoroughly kiss me.

“With your wife and daughter, I imagine,” I said, after coming up for air. I wanted to kiss him again. I did as I closed and re-bolted the door.

Chris shook his head as we walked into the parlor arm in arm. “An arranged marriage, Zachary. We have an understanding. She is happy to live her own life behind closed doors.”

“She has a lover?”

“Two or three as far as I know. It matters not at all to me. We are friendly but that is as far as it goes for each of us. We do our duty and nothing more.”

“And your infant daughter?”

“She is with her nursemaid. She will hardly comment on my absence at this age.” He drew me down to sit on the settee and then he sat upon me instead of the sofa and I was gladdened.

“How long can you stay?” I asked after kissing him again.

“How long would you like?”

Forever.

That was a fool’s dream, so I did not and could not say it.

“As long as you are able.”

Chris nodded. “About a week then.”

It was more than I expected and everything I hoped for.

After some more lengthy kissing, I murmured, “I had planned to leave for London in the morning.”

“Did you?”

“I think I’ll delay that about a week.”

He grinned. “A very wise plan.”

“Are you hungry, my love?”

“Yes, but at the moment, it’s for you. Take me to bed. It’s been far too long.”

It certainly had.

Hours later, we held onto each other in a warm bed, a fire in the hearth, and spoke of our plans for our time together. I was happy he had come. Some day, perhaps, he would not. And I would deal with that.

When he was in my kitchen eating food I had leftover, he gave me a look. “Shaw, Zachary?”

I knew I blushed. “How did you know?’

“I know.”

“It won’t be repeated. I was really quite lonely.”

Chris smiled, his sweetest smile. “I understand what you do when we are not together and accept it. We each have our duties we must tend to, but I hope you know that no matter where we are, when not together, I love you with all my heart and soul.”

“And there is no one in my heart but you, Christopher.”

“Happy Christmas,” he said, kissing me once more.

And indeed, the happiest of Christmases was had.