This is an original holiday short story, written for a 2012 Christmas blog event on the theme “A wallflower makeover on Christmas Eve.” In the past, I’ve written a Christmas wallflower novella (Once Upon a Winter’s Eve) and greatly enjoyed writing a quiet, reserved heroine who comes into her own. But with this story, I thought it would be fun to give that well-loved trope a few twists. Enjoy!
“Now, Hugh. Do promise me you’ll try tonight.”
“Try?” he echoed. His tone was willfully obtuse. “I don’t understand. Try at what?”
Juliet sighed. Visibly. The December air took her frustrated breath and made it into a tiny thundercloud.
She jammed her hands deep in her toasty, fox-fur muff. “You know what I mean. Every year my family hosts this Christmas party, and every year you travel from godforsaken Cornwall to attend it. And then you spend the entire evening skulking in the shadows.”
His laugh was low but warm. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I do not make the yearly journey all the way from Cornwall to Hertfordshire for a neighbor’s party. I come to visit my aunt.”
Juliet tried to hide the twist of her lips. Didn’t Hugh come to visit her, as well? He surely wasn’t out trudging the woods with his aunt. Not that Lady Hortense could trudge the woods, frail old thing.
Perhaps that’s all Juliet was to him now. Not a friend worth the journey to visit, but merely a convenient walking companion.
Well, tonight she would be his hostess, and she had a great many guests to consider. She’d worked hard for weeks to make this party a success.
She tried again. “All I’m saying is, gentlemen will be scarce tonight. Please make an effort to circulate. You’re always such a wallflower.”
He gave an offended snort. “I’m not a wallflower. Men cannot be flowers or blossoms of any sort.”
“What’s the proper word for men, then?” She drew to a halt and gestured at the wintry forest landscape. “Wall-stalks? Wall-shoots?”
He leaned against a nearby tree. “Wall-trunks. Anything less would be an insult.”
Juliet shook her head, smiling. He had grown rather solid in recent years—in all the best ways. Responsibility had strengthened both his body and his character. It pained her to admit it, but godforsaken Cornwall was good for him.
She grasped the cuff of his coat sleeve and tugged at it, the way she had when they were children. He’d once been a serious, quiet youth. No surprise he’d grown into a serious, quiet man. But she’d always been able to coax him into mischief.
“Come out from the corners tonight. Just this once. When you’re in the thick of things, I know you’ll enjoy it.”
“You think that because you enjoy it. But not everyone’s like you, Juliet. You are always dancing, laughing and swirling those bright skirts. But I should think you’d have grown to understand this by now. For one person to be the center of attention, there must be others at the edges. You should be thankful for wallflowers. Or wall-trunks.”
“Just promise me you’ll dance a few sets?”
He grimaced at her gloved hand, still curled around his cuff. “Perhaps I don’t know how.”
“You do know how. I know you do. We had our lessons together that summer, remember?”
He must remember. He’d arrived to visit his aunt while on summer break from Eton, only to find himself conscripted into the role of Juliet’s dance partner. The practice was supposed to do them both good. In reality, it had been painful. Their childhood summers of cub chases and fairy-hunts in these woods were long gone, leaving nothing between but adolescent awkwardness. But no matter how he must have detested the chore, Hugh had performed the duty capably, without grumbling.
In the years since, they’d never danced again. But she knew he must recall the steps. He wasn’t the sort to forget.
“Perhaps I suffer from unbearable anxiety in crowds,” he said.
“I know you too well for that. You’re reserved. But you’re not shy.”
“Perhaps I have crippling bunions, then. Or gout.”
She laughed. “You want me to believe your feet are paining you? You suggested this tromp through the woods in December.”
She arched her eyebrow and swept a gaze over his broad-shouldered, trim-waisted, generally splendid male form. He was perfectly fit. Perfectly. She suppressed a little sigh of feminine appreciation.
How would it be to dance with him now, when he wasn’t a youth anymore, but a man—tall and strong and assured?
How would it feel to be held in his arms?
Oh, goodness. Where had that thought come from?
A strange flutter took wing in her heart. She didn’t understand it. But what she knew, with bone-deep certainty, was that this man was wasted on the perimeter of any party. He had so much to offer, and he was hiding it all.
“What is it that keeps you in the corners?” she asked. “We are friends. Or at least, we were. Please tell me the truth. Is there simply no lady who interests you?”
He was silent for a long moment. His dark eyes were intense.
“Perhaps it’s the opposite,” he said. “Perhaps I’m in love—mad, desperate, unrequited love—with a lady who wants nothing to do with me.”
An odd, startled laugh burst from her throat, as though it had been punched from her gut. This idea of Hugh in love…? It came as such a shock.
Dear Lord. It hurt.
She dropped her gaze, fixing on a frosted, dead leaf at their feet. “But that’s preposterous. If you’d been in love with someone all these years, I would know. Surely I would know. Wouldn’t I?”
He seized her by the arms. His grip was strong, almost painful. “Juliet. You have no idea.”
And then, suddenly, he was kissing her.
Hugh Arthur Beresford, Lord Langdon—the reserved, steady man she’d known all her life and never thought of in that way until perhaps thirty seconds ago—was kissing her.
With passionate abandon. And all she could think was…
His lips pressed against hers, warm and strong. He gathered her into a tight embrace, binding her to his chest. When her lips fell apart, he slid his tongue inside her mouth, exploring. She made tentative explorations of her own. He tasted just as she would have imagined. Spicy and intoxicating. She couldn’t get enough.
“Juliet,” he murmured against her lips. “How I’ve wanted this.”
Evidently she’d wanted this too. How had she never known? Why had he never told her?
She threw her arms around his neck, drawing him close for another kiss. He responded with a low, thrilling moan.
Her heart pounded in her chest, powering heat through her entire body. No matter that the skies threatened snow—some depraved impulse told her to remove all her clothing, right then and there. She felt as though embers were smoldering beneath her shift.
White-hot and dangerous.
When he broke the kiss, she held fast to his coat, unwilling to let him go just yet.
She’d known there was more to him than most people could see. But she’d never imagined this. Such exhilarating passion. All her life, she’d chased this breathless feeling—chased it down slopes, raced it on horseback, pursued it across ballroom floors.
And it was here all along. In his kiss.
“Hugh,” she breathed. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Sorry for the unpleasant shock.”
“It wasn’t unpleasant. But you’ve never given any idea or hint of—”
“Of course not.”
“I don’t even understand,” she whispered, still clinging to his coat. “We’re nothing alike, you and I.”
“Precisely. And nothing can come of it. That’s why I’ve never spoken. Even if by some miracle I could convince you to care for me, how could I ask you—bright, vivacious, center-of-attention you—to come live in godforsaken Cornwall? It’s so far from your family and friends. Sparse and stark. But beautiful, in its lonesome way. In summer, the sky is almost as blue as your eyes.” He stroked her cheek. “It suits me. But you’d be miserable.”
Juliet was at a loss. She didn’t rightly know how she felt about Cornwall. He hadn’t given her a chance to consider it. He seemed to have thought this all through and made the decision for her.
He rubbed his hands up and down her arms, warming her through her cloak. Protective and caring, even as he broke her heart.
“This was wrong of me, Juliet. I’m sorry.”
He strode away, leaving her wreathed in clouds of frozen breath.
Later that evening
Hugh didn’t mind being alone. This was what a social creature like Juliet could never understand. She loved parties and company and laughter. He liked the spare beauty of a windswept moor, a solitary ride through open country, a quiet hour with a book.
In particular, he’d always loved this. Standing at the edge of a crowded ballroom, watching her.
At least, that was what he’d reasoned, all these years of not dancing with Juliet—that it would be more difficult to enjoy her beauty up-close. If he were the man twirling her across the room, he’d have too much else on his mind. Remembering the steps, tending conversation. From the corners, he could simply admire.
What a crock of lies he’d told himself.
After today, he knew the truth: There was no greater pleasure on this earth than holding Juliet Fairmont in his arms.
Well, he suspected there might be one greater pleasure on this earth, and it would be holding her naked in his arms, in bed. But since he’d have to live his life without that particular joy, he’d take what he could.
He was going to dance with her.
Tonight. As many times as she’d allow.
But first, he had to find the woman. He’d been scanning the crowd for minutes now, and no sight of Juliet. It was disconcerting. With her golden hair, her penchant for bright colors, and her wide, dazzling smile, she was usually impossible to miss.
He swirled the spiced Christmas punch in his cup and downed the remainder in one swallow. That was it. He would have to strike out in search of her.
He set the cup on a ledge, straightened the cuff of his black tailcoat, and scanned the room for his best route—when he heard a soft “ahem” from somewhere to his left.
He didn’t turn. Out of the corner of his eye, he could make out a dark, shrouded, female figure.
A woman had invaded his corner. One dressed in a smudge of gray wool, with her hair parted severely and pulled back into a simple knot.
Hugh tried to pretend he hadn’t noticed her. He straightened his other cuff, then took a step toward the crowd.
Then coughed delicately. But pointedly. And loudly enough that he could no longer pretend he didn’t hear.
Wonderful, Hugh thought. Just his luck. The one night he decided to step out from the shadows, he was immediately cornered—by a wallflower. Her pitiful snifflings weren’t signs of ill health, but desperate pleas for attention. She probably needed a friend—someone to engage her in conversation and make her feel a bit less awkward in these busy surroundings. Normally, he would have been glad to oblige.
But not tonight.
He considered walking away. But he just couldn’t do it. His dance with Juliet would have to wait a few minutes more.
“Enjoying the party?” he asked, turning to face the wallflower.
The woman smiled. “I am now.”
No. It couldn’t be.
Hugh couldn’t believe his eyes. He blinked at her, aghast. “Juliet?”
She lifted a finger to her lips, shushing him. “Since you told me you didn’t mean to dance tonight, I decided I’d have to come be a wallflower with you.”
He looked her over. She wore a high-necked gray wool dress with no ribbons or lace for adornment. No jewels. Her normally glossy, curling hair was severe as a school matron’s. She was still beautiful, of course, but not in any way that shouted for attention.
Just in a way that made his heart twist.
“I can’t believe this,” he said.
She smiled, clearly proud of herself. “I don’t think my own father recognized me. Rather shocking, how easy it is to escape notice.”
He turned his gaze back to the crowd, overwhelmed by a swell of emotion. “You could never escape my notice. I’m always aware of you. Even when we’re apart. If you were to hold your breath, I think I’d feel the tightness in my chest all the way in Cornwall. Perhaps even on the other side of the globe.”
She didn’t complete the question. She didn’t have to.
“Because look at this. Look at you tonight.” He gestured toward her bleak wallflower attire. “I appreciate your intentions, but this isn’t you. I can’t bear the thought of you changing for me. In any way.”
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’m still me. Look.”
She dropped one hand to her side and hiked her gray skirts a few inches—just enough that he could glimpse a sweetly turned ankle sheathed in ivory silk, capped by a high-heeled scarlet slipper.
A bolt of depraved, red-hot lust shot straight to his groin.
“Good Lord,” he choked out. “Don’t ever not be you. Promise me that.”
“I’ll promise. But you must promise to never leave me again.”
Juliet, Juliet. The devil himself could not have set him a more wrenching temptation. He loved her, and he’d do damn near anything if she could feel the same.
But he had duties, responsibilities. People and land that needed him.
He forced himself to say the words. “I can’t stay here.”
“I know. I know you, and—” She inched closer, lowering her voice to a tender whisper. “I love you, Hugh. I love you so dearly.”
In that moment, he’d never been so glad to be a wallflower. Or a wall-stalk, wall-trunk…whatever the hell he might be. All around them, merriment continued. No one noticed the drama crushed into this dark, quiet corner.
His world was exploding over here. Choirs were singing and earth was moving…and no one had the damnedest clue.
And good God above.
Hugh didn’t dare move, or he’d disgrace them both in some irrevocable way. Catch her in his arms, worship her with kisses. Rip that drab gray wool from her body, unpin all that severely styled hair…
She went on softly, “I don’t know how I was so stupid to never realize it until today. It wasn’t even the kiss, but those few seconds before it. When I thought you might love another woman, I—” Her voice caught. “I never felt so cold and empty in my life. I can be happy anywhere—even in godforsaken Cornwall. But I can’t be happy without you.”
Her hand found his and clasped tight. The gesture was so perfectly Juliet. She was nothing if not impulsive, brave, warm.
And, on this night of Christmas miracles, it would seem she was his. Forever, if he could manage it.
“I’ll speak to your father,” he said.
Her eyes brightened with genuine joy, and it warmed him to see. “Please do.”
“But not quite yet.”
She frowned with disappointment. “Must you delay?”
“I think I must.” He lifted her hand, kissed it, and threaded it through his arm, pulling her close. “First, Juliet, I mean to acquaint you with one of the prime benefits of being a wallflower.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
He leaned to whisper darkly in her ear. “We know all the best secluded places.”