Although not strictly a Christmas story (and released by Harlequin in July) A Wager for the Widow is set in Cornwall around Midwinter so I’ve taken the opportunity to include some of the preparations that would have taken place before an important feast day.
In this excerpt Eleanor and Will are working on preparations for the Marchpane, an almond and sugar sculpture that would act as centrepiece for the Midwinter night feast. These were often highly elaborate pieces decorated with gold leaf.
‘I tell you for the last time: I will not countenance a peacock!’
Eleanor folded her arms and stared defiantly at Master Rudhale.
‘It is too…too…’‘Too grandiose?’ the steward suggested.
Eleanor nodded. Even for a duke’s feast the idea of so over-elaborate a centrepiece would be too gaudy.Rudhale gestured to the rough sketches of beasts and birds that littered the table between them. His eyes glinted with amusement.
‘Which animal would suit your nature, I wonder? A timid doe, or perhaps a soft brown rabbit?
’Eleanor’s lips curled into a smile at his teasing. Rudhale had disputed almost every decision she had made in his absence. Ordinarily she would have bridled at such a challenge to her authority, but somehow his arrogance had softened. He had done it with such good humour that she had not minded and found herself responding in kind. She conceded some, he gave way on others and two days had passed with Eleanor enjoying every tussle.They had been arguing for an age into the late afternoon as they sat in the Great Hall rejecting design after design. Eleanor was almost beyond caring what form the marchpane centrepiece would take, but the discussion had been a welcome diversion on a gloomy day and she was determined to win the battle of wills.
‘The peacock represents yourself, I suppose?’ she countered with a wicked smile.
‘As if I need such adornments!’ Rudhale looked at her with playful indignation and brushed imagined dust from his plain linen tunic.
Eleanor’s eyes followed the passage of his hands as they moved across his broad chest. She found herself wondering what it would feel like to brush her fingers across the firm contours and her throat constricted. Disconcerted by the thought, she folded her arms and spoke with mock severity.
‘If I had known you to be so argumentative, I would have worked swifter while you were absent and made all the plans alone.’
‘If I had known how rapidly you would have run through my list, I would have made it shorter and left you instead to weave with your mother!’ Rudhale mused. ‘Forcing me to bed down with your brother indeed!’
Eleanor’s smile dropped and she looked away from him, picking the first sheet her hand rested on. Quite why Edmund’s allusion to Rudhale’s bedfellows caused her any concern at all was something Eleanor preferred not to consider. Of course the steward could have—and probably did have—any number of women with a click of his fingers. She pushed the image to the back of her mind, feeling a brief swell of satisfaction that she had not added to the numbers.
Rudhale left his seat and walked round the table to stand behind Eleanor. He leaned over her shoulder and studied the sheet in her hand. Eleanor looked at what she was holding for the first time. A pair of turtledoves stared back at her, their heads together as they sat atop a fruit-laden tree. Her throat tightened briefly as she gazed at the devoted lovers. Rudhale took the paper from her.
‘We are agreed?’ He smiled, though Eleanor had not spoken. She nodded. He leaned back against the table beside Eleanor, his hand almost touching her own. ‘I knew I could rely upon you to find the perfect choice, my lady.’ His face grew serious, taking Eleanor by surprise. ‘I give you my thanks for your help. In this and all you have done to aid me.’
He inclined his head towards her respectfully. The muscles in his throat tightened, revealing a contour that was smooth and taut where his beard ended. Eleanor’s eyes traced the line of Rudhale’s neck down to where the tangled ends of his hair brushed against the hollow of his collarbone, visible at the laced neck of his tunic. The steward cleared his throat quietly and with a start Eleanor realised she had been staring at him in silence for who could tell how long.
‘For three years I have been mistress of my own household. Did you doubt I would be capable of organising such affairs?’ she said brusquely to cover her embarrassment. Rudhale’s eyes widened at her tone and shame flooded her. ‘I give you my thanks, too, for asking me to help you,’ she said more gently. ‘It was you who thought of it, wasn’t it, not Father?’
‘I had no doubt you would be perfectly capable of following my suggestions.’ Rudhale nodded. He raised one eyebrow, his blue eyes dancing again. ‘I am completely sure you could admirably fulfil anything I asked of you.’