Three Years Later
“I want to go to the party,” Theodore complained as his nurse pulled his nightshirt over his head.”
Conor chuckled. His son was Astrid in miniature, he thought. He was always so sure of himself and of what he wanted, and he was always determined to get it.
“No party this year,” he said. “The Christmas party isn’t for little boys. It’s for grown-ups.”
“But I want to go! Anastasia says there will be pudding.”
Anastasia didn’t look up from the buttons she was fastening up the little boy’s back. “I said there would be leftover pudding, and that you and I would visit the kitchen and get some for ourselves tomorrow. Don’t you remember me saying that?”
“Pudding now,” Theodore insisted.
Conor reached down and picked his son up in his arms. “If I get a coin in my pudding tonight, I’ll save it for you,” he told his son. “How would that be?”
Theodore thought about it. “I would get to keep it?”
“Only if you’re good for Anastasia for the rest of the evening. You must do exactly as she tells you. She’ll let me know if you give her any trouble,” he warned.
Theodore nodded. “I’m good.”
“All right then. Finish getting ready for bed. I’ll have DuBois bring you up a plate of food that you can enjoy in the nursery.”
“Maybe a little bit of pudding.”
Anastasia smiled at him. She was painfully young, only seventeen years old, but Astrid had found her working as a maid in the back of a bar and had been absolutely appalled. “Do you know how they treat girls who work in bars?” she’d demanded of Conor. “Of course, you don’t. You never employed any women at The Arc, and a good thing too. It’s abysmal, the way those girls are treated.”
“What can I do about it?” Conor had asked her. But Astrid had had that gleam in her eye, that look that said she knew exactly what she wanted done about it and she wouldn’t settle for anything less.
And so, Anastasia had come to Middleborough Manor to work as a nurse. The female staff had taken her under their wing almost immediately, and Astrid said she could tell that Anastasia was happy in her new position.
Whoever would have thought this would be me? Conor thought to himself. I never thought of myself as someone who could provide good work situations to young women. And yet, isn’t this the second time in three years I’ve done exactly that?
As if to prove his point to him, Betsy, Astrid’s lady’s maid, came scampering into the hall. “My Lord,” she announced. “Lady Middleborough is ready to greet you.”
“Very well.” It amused Conor that Betsy still managed to get so excited over every formal occasion. He imagined that to be a great quality in the girl who was responsible for both dressing Astrid and spending the day with her before parties. “Bring her out.”
Betsy disappeared into the master bedroom, from which Conor had been barred for the last several hours while Astrid was getting ready. A moment later she emerged with her lady on her arm.
Astrid looked radiant. Her hair was pinned up in an ornate style that Conor thought must have taken all day to create. It looked as if it had been sculpted. Her gown was deep-green velvet, belling out above the gentle swell of her belly without hiding the fact that she was expecting again.
He approached and took her in his arms. “You look lovely, as usual,” he said.
She smiled. It was wonderful to see her like this. Three years as a member of the noble class had wrought a change in Astrid that perhaps only Conor might have seen coming. She adored parties now. Where once she had viewed them as a challenging but necessary part of this life, now she looked forward to them.
“You look very fine yourself,” she said, leaning back in his embrace to admire his party clothes. “Merry Christmas.”
“I have a present for you,” he said.
She gasped in mock surprise. “Do you really!”
He laughed. Of course, she wasn’t really surprised. A present on the eve of their annual party was one of their traditions. He had started it a couple of years ago, when she had been pregnant with Theodore. On that occasion, her pregnancy had been much further along on the day of the party. He smiled at the memory of how big she’d been.
Today at least she’ll be able to dance, he thought. She enjoyed herself that year, I think, sitting in her chair all evening and entertaining guests with stories, and she was good at it. But she’ll have much more fun out on the dance floor.
And he couldn’t lie to himself—he wanted her out there too.
Dancing with one’s wife was the best possible excuse for not wanting to share a dance with every noble lady for miles around. Everyone would understand his saying he needed to dance with Astrid.
But there was more to his desire than simply avoiding the others. Years of throwing this party had built up in him a tolerance for the company of other members of the ton. He could handle the inane conversations, and he even knew who to seek out when he wanted a more stimulating discussion.
I’d even consider many of them to be friends. That was something he had never expected.
No, he wanted to dance with Astrid because there was simply nothing he had ever experienced to equal the feeling of holding her in his arms while music played.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out her present—a diamond bracelet. The smile that burst across her face was radiant. She held out her arm for him to fasten it around her wrist, and then she held it up to admire.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“Not as beautiful as you.” He took her arm. “Are you ready? We should go downstairs. I believe our guests are starting to arrive.”
She smiled. “Remember the first Christmas party we ever threw together?” she asked him. “Everyone showed up early, because they were so curious about us.”
“In a way I almost miss it,” Conor admitted. “There was something special about being the person in town who nobody knew anything about.”
“At least you don’t have to worry about them guessing things about you anymore,” Astrid said. “You’re a public figure now.”
It was true. With Killian O’Flannagan as his business partner, Conor had opened two new clubs to go along with The Arc and the Angry Boar. He had hired help to manage all four locations, sparing him from having to be on site at all, apart from the rare occasions when he wanted to visit.
Gone were the days of standing in the corner, a silent observer. When Conor set foot in one of his clubs, he was immediately mobbed. Patrons rushed over to tell him how much they enjoyed the place.
It’s because they’re not afraid of me anymore, he thought. Working with Killian killed off all the rumors about me. I’m not intimidating to them now. I’m just the Earl of Middleborough, the man who throws these wonderful parties and owns the town’s best drinking establishments.
It was hard to believe everything had turned out so well.
The only thing that festered in the back of Conor’s mind sometimes was the fact that Henry was no longer a part of his life. His ex-friend had been convicted of Astrid’s kidnapping and had spent two years in jail.
It’s strange that he’s out now, Conor thought. He’s somewhere in the city tonight, perhaps at a party of his own. They hadn’t been able to prove that Henry was guilty of Lord Hayward’s murder, even though common sense told everyone that he was. If that had been proven, he would still be locked away.
Conor hadn’t yet worked out how he felt about Henry winning his freedom. It was strange to think that he was out there somewhere, that he could potentially appear on Conor’s doorstep or in one of his clubs.
But Conor knew Henry wouldn’t do that. He had better sense than to try to approach Conor ever again. It wouldn’t end well for him if he did.
Still, it’s strange. Henry would absolutely have been invited to tonight’s party if things hadn’t gone the way they did.
While the first Christmas party had been strictly for the noble class, Astrid had insisted on opening all the subsequent parties to select commoners as well. It felt wrong, she argued, for them to hold themselves apart from the people. And besides, her father was a commoner, and so was Killian O’Flannagan.
It was Tobias who greeted them first when they descended the stairs. “I hope I’m not too early,” he said, embracing his daughter. “I know how busy these things can get for you, and I wanted to make sure I had the chance to see you.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Astrid said, stepping briefly away from Conor to hug her father.
“And where’s my grandson?”
“In bed already,” Astrid said with a smile. “As you well knew he would be.”
“Then how am I to give him his Christmas gift?” Tobias adopted a tone of mock indignation.
“DuBois can take it up to him for you when he takes up the supper, if you’d like,” Conor suggested.
“I suppose that will have to do.” Tobias pulled a package wrapped in cloth and tied with a string out of his coat pocket. “It’s a little wooden wolf,” he said. “I carved it myself. I thought he might enjoy playing with it.”
“I’m sure he’ll love it,” Conor said. Theodore had recently come to an age where he was fixated on animals. One of his favorite activities was visiting the park and chasing the birds, calling to them to come back so that he could feed them. He took the package from Tobias.
Astrid plucked it from his hand. “I’ll give this to DuBois,” she told him. “You have another guest arriving, and you should greet him.”
Conor looked to the door. Killian O’Flannagan stood there, coat draped over his arm, looking a bit lost.
“Killian,” Conor said, approaching his partner and friend. “I’m glad you could make it. My doorman will take your coat.”
Killian handed the garment off. “This is your manor, is it?”
“Well, it’s very nice,” Killian said a bit grudgingly. The friendship between the two men had never become an easy thing. Conor was still uncomfortable with the many unpleasant things Killian had said about him when they had been rivals, and he suspected that Killian still didn’t like him very much.
Still, it was Christmas. “Let me show you into the dining room,” he suggested. “We have food on the table already, and supper will be served before long.”
It was a Christmas party to rival any they had ever thrown at Middleborough Manor. The guests stayed far later than was their normal custom, and the musicians were compelled to play several additional songs beyond what they had planned. Everyone remarked on the quality of the food and the decorations.
And, of course, everyone remarked on Astrid’s magnificent gown and how well her pregnancy seemed to be coming along.
Tobias stood by her side much of the night, boasting about his second grandchild. Conor was happy to let him do it. He admired his little family from the corner of the room, for once feeling nothing but pure happiness in his role as observer.
Astrid was a magnificent woman. She was really something worth watching.
He found her for the final dance of the evening. It was a lively number, but they moved slowly despite that, turning and turning in each other’s arms and staring into each other’s eyes. And as the clock struck midnight, he lowered his lips to hers and they shared a kiss.
Ah, before you go...
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