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A Grosvenor Square Christmas
featuring Kate's short story "The Last First Kiss"
Susannah Westforth has been in love with her neighbor Sebastian Beckett since she was a child – but he’s only ever seen her as a friend. When Sebastian goes on his Grand Tour, Susannah takes the opportunity to transform herself from an awkward girl into a woman worthy of notice.
Now Sebastian’s back in London, just in time for Lady Winterson’s Christmas Ball. But the last thing he’s expecting is to see his little Susie, all grown up, and intent upon getting a long forgotten kiss from the only man she’s ever wanted.
“So, the snow is too impassible to get to Derbyshire, but not impassible enough to let us skip Lady Winterson’s ball?”
Sebastian Beckett grumbled as they pulled up to Grosvenor Square, joining a long queue of carriages emptying out in front of No. 3. He had been back in England for a se’ennight, back in London for two days, and he was already exhausted by the pace of the Little Season. A Little Season he’d originally had no intention of taking part in.
Of course, the weather had changed that.
“No one misses Lady Winterson’s ball! It’s where all the fun is!” his friend and travelling companion, Jude St. John, had said, shaking his head at Sebastian’s lack of holiday spirit. But it was dashed hard to have holiday spirit when one was not where they wished to be for the holiday!
By the time they’d travelled from Calais to the St. John house in Berkley Square in London, the word from the Great North Road was that the snow was half a carriage wheel high. There wasn’t anything to be done but accept Lady St. John’s hospitality. Letters were dispatched to his father Sir Beckett in Derbyshire, but they would likely not get there any sooner than Sebastian would.
Holidays were for homecomings, and Sebastian wanted to be home. After three years abroad – every moment of which was spent experiencing the world and admittedly enjoying himself – he wanted the familiarity of Custard House, the quaint streets his village, and the family and friends he’d only been known to by letter for far too long. And yes, granted, he had been the one to extend his trip, not once but twice. But that had been for very good reasons.
When given the opportunity to climb the foothills of the Alps in Switzerland, one must take it, mustn’t they? And when invited to attend a six-month excavation in Egypt of a King’s tomb (which actually turned out to be a regular person’s tomb, with no treasure inside) – adventures of that sort do not wait on sentimentality.
But it was time to be back in the bosom of his loving family. To see the familiar smiling faces of his friends and regale them with tales of his adventures. Besides, now that he was so close to where he began, it was the only place he wanted to be. Not even the famed Christmas Ball at No. 3 Grosvenor Square could distract him from his frustration. Indeed, the line of carriages and the crush of people only frustrated him further.
He thought of the rolling hills of his father’s estate. Even on a winter day like today, he would have wanted to take his horse out for a good ride. Maybe little Susie Westforth would trot over merrily and join him, trying to best him on Clarabelle, and coming close a time or two. Then he and Susie (who would have decided their race only after a quarter hour of arguing about it) would adjourn to Custard House, or maybe Dewberry Manor, depending on whose home they were close to, and play cards or games and be merry.
Only then, after a week or so of that bucolic atmosphere would he be bored enough to come back to town for the Little Season. Then he would be happy to flirt with debutantes and have hushed conversations with double meanings. Then he would enjoy having his blood stirred by the sight of lowered lids and a small, promising smile on a full-lipped mouth.
But only once he’d had his fill of home.
“If we don’t reach the front of the line soon, we will miss the ball simply by it ending before we get in the door,” he grumbled.
Unfortunately, he’d had little sympathy from Jude, who already was home and able to enjoy the comforts of family (and the food his mother stuffed into him, which Jude enjoyed immensely) as well as the stimulations of society at the same time.
“First you want to avoid the ball, now you are impatient to arrive,” Jude replied, mocking. When Sebastian sent him a look, Jude threw up his hands. “You are stuck here, Bass. Might as well try to enjoy it. Mother tells me that this particular ball will be worth our while.”
“Your mother prays it will be worth your while, given it s history.” Even Sebastian, from a small country village, knew of Lady Winterson’s Christmas Ball, and how seemingly every year, there would be some couple or other that found romance there. Sebastian had no doubt Lady Winterson or her storied butler, Philbert, perpetuated the myth. Indeed, it was practically printed on the invitations. And if Lady St. John could have her food-loving, adventure-seeking son find a young lady of quality there to make his bride and settle down with, so much the better in her eyes. Sebastian had only known Jude’s mother for two days, and he knew that much without a doubt.
But Jude shrugged off his mother’s secondary motives. Indeed, he even seemed to play right into them. “I hear that every young lady worth meeting this season is there. And some shine especially bright. There’s one my mother says was such a success this season, she turned down seven marriage proposals. Even one from an Earl!” His eyes glittered, his voice became wistful. “A lady like that must be incredible.”
Jude got his love of gossip from his mother.
“Or incredibly silly,” Sebastian argued. “Who turns down an Earl?”
“Someone who is waiting for love,” Jude considered. “Or someone who can afford to be particular.”
Sebastian was about to debate the point further, although he was only doing so because he was in a dark mood, but at that moment their carriage jerked forward one last time and rolled to a stop in front of No. 3.
“Time to find out if it is worth our while. ” Jude grinned at him as the carriage door swung open, letting in a rush of chilly air. “Could you do me a favor?” Jude asked then. “Could you try to have a good time?”
“Yes,” Sebastian relented, knowing now that his glum behavior so far that night must have been abominable to make Jude turn serious, even for a moment. “I can try.” And he pushed out into the cold.
Luckily, the cold only lasted as long as it took to hop from the carriage and up the stairs of No. 3, but it was still harsh enough to sting at Sebastian’s nose. After three years in sunnier climes, he was beginning to wonder how he had survived English winters his entire life. But all that chill melted away as soon as they entered the huge marbled foyer of Lady Winterson’s house.
It was a complete crush. Which no doubt added to the steaming warmth. A good dozen groups waited ahead of them in the receiving line, divesting themselves of cloaks and greatcoats, arranging skirts and cravats to perfection, and throwing elbows out and squishing everyone else as they did so. Some people who had already been received chatted and lingered on the grand curved staircase that dominated the entrance, pink-cheeked ladies in white being pressed against dark clad young men as servants in green and red livery tried to wend their way past, carrying trays of champagne and treats.
“The ballroom and dining room must be packed full, if people are mingling out here,” Jude whispered, as he spotted someone he knew and gave a cheerful wave of greeting. They made their way to the formidable – and formidably beautiful – Lady Winterson.
“Young Lord St. John – so recently returned from your travels!” Lady Winterson greeted them with cheer. “And how does your mother?”
“Wonderfully!” Jude replied, giving excuses for his mother’s inability to attend. She had recently entered her tenth confinement. No wonder she was eager to get Jude married off and out of the house – even a large house like theirs would be pressed for space.
“And how pleasant to make your acquaintance, Mr. Beckett,” Lady Winterson was saying, and Sebastian gave a graceful bow. “I hope your journeys of late have been pleasurable.”
“Oh yes,” Sebastian quipped. “Although not half as long as the wait to get into your ball, my lady.”
Jude sent him a hard look. “Bass…” he said under his breath, and Sebastian colored. “Don’t be so mulish. I apologize, Lady Wint—”
“Oh, I am sure your friend means to compliment, even if he does it with a frown, ” Lady Winterson interrupted smoothly. “After all, a lady likes to be popular.”
Sebastian relaxed his shoulders, bowing again. His rudeness was unpardonable, and he was lucky to be pardoned. “Indeed, my lady. I should be mortified if you took it any other way.”
Lady Winterson seemed to relax too. Then her eyes sparkled with something that might have taken Sebastian aback, if he hadn't been so preoccupied being mortified by his own behavior. “Not at all, Mr. Beckett. However, I am terribly affronted by the frown. I will not have frowns at my party, and especially not at Christmas. Philbert will declare the night a disaster if he sees you, and he’s already in a mood. I can only assume it has to do with the mistletoe arrangements. He has been terribly finicky about them.”
Sebastian felt the corner of his mouth perk up.
“There, that’s a start. I suggest you gentlemen have a drink of champagne and find some ladies to dance with. We have an excellent selection. ” She winked, making Sebastian’s mouth tick up further. “And who knows? Maybe Mr. Beckett will find his smile.”
With that, they were dismissed.
“What is the matter with you, Bass? You weren’t so egg-headed on the continent as to insult our hostess first thing upon entering her home, ” Jude chided under his breath as they squeezed past the throngs and into the ballroom proper.
“I know,” Sebastian replied. “I apologize. It won’t happen again.”
Jude just sighed, prompting Sebastian to slap him on the back.
“It won’t! I promise, I will try to find a bit of holiday spirit. Look, ” he said, pointing across the elegant room. “Isn’t that Parkhurst? I haven’t seen him since we left university.” Their old school chum stood with a group of young men, centered around someone. A female. Sebastian could see the swish of ivory silk skirts but nothing else.
Jude’s face broke out into a grin. “Who’s he standing with? Parkhurst, old man! Happy Christmas!”
A chorus of greetings came their way as Jude leapt forward to hail old friends and make new. And in that moment, Sebastian decided to be happy. Or at least try. Jude and Lady Winterson were right: he was here now, why not try to make the best of it? Try and find a smile and some Christmas cheer. Yes, he missed Custard House and his family. Yes, he missed the country, and his friends, and even little Susie Westforth running wild over the hills on her horse. But right now, there was wine to be had (as he grabbed a glass off a passing tray) and friends to reacquaint himself with (as he clapped Parkhurst on the shoulder), and apparently, a young lady that had captured everyone’s attention.
Home would wait a few more days for him. It would not have changed.
That was the last thought he could remember before Parkhurst turned to greet them, allowing Sebastian a peek at the young lady that was the center of all this male attention.
He saw her all at once, but in that moment, it was as though his mind could comprehend her only in small pieces. Dark, silky hair, done up in intricate falling curls that touched against creamy soft shoulders. Her dress clung to the curves on her slim frame, making a man acutely aware of what was seen and what was unseen. Hooded eyes sparkling in the candlelight, a knowing smile painted on a full-lipped mouth that offered a hint of promise… hope for whispered conversation full of double meanings.
And her voice… it was as familiar to him as a song, but somehow, he’d never heard it this way before.
“Hello, Sebastian,” Susannah Westforth purred. Little no more. “Happy Christmas.”