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  Gifts of Love



  Holiday Spirit



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  Holiday Spirit



  True love is like ghosts,

  which everybody talks about

  and few have seen.



  In the huge, drafty, and chilly drawing room was an intense and profound silence; the sort of silence, Antonia reflected bitterly, that her grandmother had perfected over fifty years of methodical practice. Like the icy blue eyes gazing out of the aged but still handsome face, the silence indicated extreme offense.

  “I beg your pardon, Grandmother,” Antonia said stiffly, her own blue eyes still as fierce as when she had spoken the offending words, but her face schooled into a mask of regret and apology. “Wingate Castle is your home, not mine; I had no right to question your choice of guests.”

  “Question?” The Countess of Ware’s voice was measured. “I should rather have termed it an attack, Antonia.”

  Even more stiffly, Antonia said, “I was taken off guard, and spoke without thinking, Grandmother. Again, I beg your pardon.”

  Thawing ever so slightly, Lady Ware inclined her head regally. “I observe Sophia has at least seen to it your manners are not wholly wanting.”

  Antonia flushed, sensing a faint sarcasm. “If I lack anything with regard to social graces, it isn’t Mama’s fault, Grandmother, and I won’t have you abusing her.”

  This direct statement, though it could properly be termed rude, brought a spark of approval to Lady Ware’s eyes. In a milder tone, she said, “Very well, Antonia, there’s no need to mount a second attack against me on behalf of your mother. I have always thought Sophia a silly goose, but neither you nor anyone else can claim I do not appreciate her true worth; she has a kind heart and a generous disposition, and well I know it.”

  Regarding her granddaughter sternly, Lady Ware continued, “However, that is neither here nor there. I should like to know, Antonia, why you object so violently to Lyonshall’s presence here. It has, after all, been nearly two years since your engagement ended, and I daresay you have encountered one another countless times in London since that shameful episode.”

  Antonia gritted her teeth. In the eyes of her grandmother—and, indeed, in the eyes of society—Antonia’s jilting of the Duke of Lyonshall had most certainly been a shameful, and inexplicable, action. Even her mother had no idea what had gone wrong; Lady Sophia had suffered most dreadfully from the ensuing gossip, and had nearly swooned when, some months later, she had been forced to greet the duke in public.

  As for herself, Antonia had encountered him at a number of the ton parties; she had even danced with him at Almack’s at the beginning of the present Season. It was, after all, vital to maintain an appearance of cool politeness. Nothing so offended the sensibilities as a private disagreement paraded before the gawking eyes of the public; Antonia might have committed a social solecism, but she was not lost to all sense of propriety.

  “I have encountered the duke,” she replied in measured tones, “and I expect to encounter him again since we are often invited to the same parties. But you must see, Grandmother, that for him to be invited to my family’s home for the Christmas holidays will give rise to just the sort of gossip I have been at some pains to silence. Furthermore, I don’t understand why you would put me in such a position. Nor do I understand why you have chosen to house both the duke and myself in the South wing—alone.”

  Lady Ware offered her a frosty smile. “Since it has been recently renovated after being closed off for fifty years, the South wing is the most comfortable section of the castle, Antonia, with apartments far grander than any of the rest—even my own rooms. Are you complaining of your accommodations?”

  For the first time, Antonia had the uneasy suspicion that her grandmother—famed as much for her sly machinations as for her blighting social graces—had an ulterior motive when she had arranged this little house party. But it was absurd! What could she possibly hope to accomplish?

  Ignoring the question put to her, Antonia said, “Grandmother, I trust you understand that the mere idea of—of in any way reconciling with Lyonshall is profoundly distasteful to me. If you have that idea in your head—”

  Lady Ware let out a sound which, in anyone less dignified, would have been termed a snort. “Don’t be absurd, Antonia. Do you suppose I would for one moment believe that Lyonshall could bring himself to offer for you a second time after your disgraceful conduct? No man of pride and breeding could even consider such a thing.”

  Antonia had flushed vividly, then gone rather pale at the crushing remarks, and her lips were pressed tightly together as she met that eagle-eyed stare. “Very well, then. This is your home, and it is for you to decide where your guests shall sleep. However, Grandmother, at the risk of offending you yet again, I must request that my coach be brought around; I am returning to London immediately.”

  Lady Ware’s expression was one of faint surprise. “You cannot have looked out a window in the past hour, child. It began to sleet and snow some time since; you would hardly set out for London in such weather. In fact, I can only hope Lyonshall has not been constrained to put up at some inferior inn on his journey here.”

  Angry and—if the truth were told—intensely uncomfortable at the thought of spending several days in the company of her former betrothed, Antonia could only hope he had been compelled by inclement weather to delay—indefinitely—his arrival at the castle. But she doubted that was so. Lyonshall not only owned the finest horseflesh in England, he was also famous for his disregard of any obstacle in his path; if he intended to reach the castle, he would do so.

  Balked in her determination to avoid the situation, Antonia could only curtsy and stalk from the room, head high.

  Lady Ware, left alone in the huge room and comfortable in her chair before a blazing fire, chuckled softly. She had managed to divert her granddaughter’s thoughts from the—really quite improper—allocation of rooms, and that had been her primary intent. Sophia would no doubt protest the arrangement, in her fluttery way, but Lady Ware had every confidence of being able to handle her.

  And since the “house party” consisted of only the duke, Antonia and her mother, and the countess herself, there would be no one to carry tales of what went on here back to London.

  Lady Ware congratulated herself. Providing Lyonshall reached the castle, her plan should come off rather well, she thought. The weather would serve to explain why her house party was no larger; since the castle, located in the northern Welsh mountains, had seen icy weather each Christmas for decades, Lady Ware had been able to factor that into her careful scheme. She had been doubtful only of her ability to get Lyonshall here; his own country seat was his customary retreat for the holidays, and he was notoriously disinclined to respond favorably to a summons from one who, though lesser in rank, commanded considerable social power.

  At her best when slyness was called for, Lady Ware had been maneuvering for months to find a way of getting the duke here. After studying the situation—and the man—she had finally hit upon an outrageous solution.

  Smiling to herself as she sat in her chair, the countess reflected that a lesson in the tragedy of mistakes would do both the duke and Antonia good. In fact, if she knew Antonia—and she did, far more completely than that young lady could guess—the lesson would have a profound effect.

  The stage was set. Now if only the actors who had sustained their roles for so many ye